Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
How did you get into psychedelic research?
It all started when I was studying psychoanalysis at Brunel University. I was in a seminar where the seminar leader raised the different methods for accessing the unconscious mind. It seemed as though the methods used by psychoanalysis were very limited – free association, dreaming, hypnosis, bungled actions, slips of the tongue. They never really convinced everyone.
So I thought if the unconscious is real, could drugs reveal it? I must have had psychedelics in mind. Then I found that there was a book by Stanislav Grof called Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research, it was a light-bulb moment really. I realized there is all this literature from the 1950s and the 1960s, and the rationale was the drug lowered ego defences such that you could gain privileged access to the unconscious mind. Especially in the early days, that was the idea – that people on LSD might get spontaneous insights into memories or relationships that are causal of whatever symptoms they have. So that’s how my interest started.
What did that first phase of psychedelic research establish?
Unfortunately, I’d say it established nothing. To establish something, you need a robustly designed study, with outcomes that are valid and replicable. A lot of those ingredients were missing. It was certainly highlighting the unique potential of psychedelics.
How long did that phase of research last for, and why did it stop?
The first English language paper on LSD was in 1950, that was by a couple of Americans. Then the 50s was a busy time, by 54, 55, there were a significant number of papers in the UK, Europe and elsewhere. It peaks around the late 50s. By the time we hit the 1960s, the drug has crossed over and is being used recreationally. So that’s the period of controversy, with negative media reports on LSD, and individuals like Timothy Leary becoming a kind of figurehead, and saying arguably irresponsible things.
I suppose it did have a huge cultural impact.
Yes. One way to look at it is that Timothy Leary’s loud mouth turned a lot of people on to LSD. However, it also turned off the legitimate scientific research.
Can you blame Leary alone?
It would be easy and unfair to blame one individual. People do. But it’s probably unfair. He was stoking the flames. People were saying ‘tread carefully, don’t spoil the party’. And his vision became something other than scientific research, it was about a social and psychological revolution. People were taking LSD without sufficient knowledge of its effects or sufficient caution. So LSD became illegal in 1967, and the illegality made it so much harder to do research.
But there was still some research in the 70s and 80s?
Not really. It’s just barren, in terms of high-end research. In the US and UK it entirely dried up.
When did it restart?
The first modern human study was I think in the mid 1990s, by an American researcher, Rick Strassman. He had a simple study where he gave people DMT (from ayahuasca) intravenously, and he reported on the effects. He had a larger grand theory, that DMT occurs spontaneously in the brain and is responsible for religious experiences. But the study was quite simple. What was odd was he didn’t really do many more studies after this.
But then Franz Vollenweider, who is a Swiss psychiatrist and pharmacologist, started doing research with psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and he did some interesting brain-imaging studies of the effects. People started to consider the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics again – there was an early study looking at the impact of psilocybin in OCD. And since then there’s been a psilocybin study for reducing anxiety in terminally ill patients.
Was that Roland Griffiths’ team at Johns Hopkins?
No that was Charles Grob at UCLA, although Roland is doing this too now. However, Roland Griffiths’ big papercame out in 2006, and he reported on giving high doses of psilocybin to healthy, psychedelically naive people, who’d never tripped before, and lo-and-behold, they had the experience of their lives. It was a very clever study, because it communicated to the man in the street, who doesn’t know anything about psychedelics, that these are drugs that can produce experiences that are among the most meaningful in your life, comparable to things like childbirth for example.
Has there been research on using psychedelics to treat alcoholism?
Yes, there is American research on using psilocybin to treat alcoholism. Some people have argued that perhaps the strongest evidence base for psychedelics is for LSD to treat alcohol dependence. There were a number of studies in the 60s, and some of their design wasn’t that bad. Outcome measures were improving. And with alcoholism, you have a more concrete measurement. A meta-analysis of the old research was carried out quite recently, and they looked at those studies which had the most rigorous methodology, and they found that the better-designed studies were showing good efficacy, comparable to the leading treatments today.
When did research start again in the UK?
I went to see David Nutt [former UK government drugs advisor] in 2004 / 2005 [when he would have been 24]. I was finishing my masters in psychoanalysis at Brunel, and wanted to do a PhD. I found a flyer on consciousness research, and contacted somebody who told me about David Nutt and Amanda Fielding at the Beckley Foundation. So I went to see both, and told them that my dream was to do a brain imaging study of LSD, and my hypothesis was that the psychedelic experience is like a REM experience, so you’re dreaming while awake. David said you have to walk before you can run – I didn’t have any experience in neuroscience at that stage – and I ended up doing a PhD on something vaguely related: MDMA, sleep and serotonin.
I still had these ambitions to do a brain imaging study about LSD. Amanda Fielding shared them – she runs a charity that does drug policy work and consciousness research, and after I’d finished my PhD, David said she had money to pay for a brain imaging study of psychedelics. At that point I designed the study of the effects of psilocybin.
Was that the first psychedelic research in the UK for a long time?
Yes it was. I don’t think there had ever been a published study on psilocybin in the UK.
How strange that no one else did a study in all that time.
Yes, it’s tricky to do.
Why were you able to do it?
Because a number of critical ingredients came together, like David Nutt, an established pharmacologist at the top of the tree; and an independent philanthropist funder, because mainstream funders wouldn’t fund it; and then I guess a young researcher who had the energy.
Tell me about the study.
We gave psilocybin intravenously to people, so the effects are almost instantaneous and will last 45 minutes, rather than five hours. Rick Strassman referred to such trips as a ‘businessman’s trip’. Then we did an fMRI scan of their brains. And that’s when we saw a decrease in blood flow to certain parts of the brain. That was a bit of a revelation, as no one had ever shown that before. Some people had shown the opposite. So it was a bit of a head scratcher. We spent a good duration of time checking our results. But then we replicated what we found using a different modality – again an fMRI measure – and we again found drops in the fMRI signal after we infused the drug, in a particular area.
The decreases were in regions of the brain that have very dense connections – they’re like hubs in the network, centres of high interconnectivity. It was these regions that were showing the largest decreases. That got us thinking, when you have decreases in centres of information-integration, what happens to the system. The natural inference was, you’d have a more chaotic system that operates in a less organized and constrained way.
Do you see similar kind of activity during REM sleep?
You see decreased blood-flow in association cortices at least posteriorly, so yes, you seem some correlation. So it’s possible that if these association regions have a constraining influence on other regions in the brain, that you may take the lid off the system and cause some dis-inhibition in other areas. In fact, that’s one of our most recent findings – there are regions that show elevated or at least more erratic activity after psilocybin. And the regions that show the increase in signal amplitude are particular subcortical regions like the hippocampus. And in REM sleep, brain imaging has also found increased activity in the hippocampus and the limbic region.
Which are more associated with memory and emotion?
What’s your hypothesis of what’s happening?
It brings me back full circle to the Freudian model. It’s no coincidence that one of the most common descriptions you associate with psychedelic experience is ego disintegration. When people talk about ego disintegration, it isn’t cliquey Freudians smoking their cigars, it’s psychonaut kids.
So what does that mean at a physical and biological level? The networks that are the strongest candidates for the sense of self and the personality are precisely those that are ‘knocked out’, for want of a better word, under psychedelics. The puzzle is starting to fit quite neatly in my mind. If you’re decreasing the function in this particular network, then I offer the explanation that it’s a correlate of ego disintegration. In a further study using MEG – which measures brain waves – when we looked in one of the regions that showed the marked decrease in oscillatory power, its magnitude correlated positively with a subjective rating scale of ego disintegration (people were asked ‘Did you experience ego disintegration?’ and people answered on a scale from ‘not at all’ to ‘very much’.) Those who rated that very highly also had the biggest decreases in oscillatory power in this region which is part of the self network – the posterior cingulate cortex.
The unconscious that people seem to discover through psychedelic experience – is it closer to the Jungian unconscious than the Freudian model? People don’t seem to go into a savage Freudian jungle where they have sex with their mother and kill their father. It seems more like the Jungian wonderland – a more positive model of the unconscious, where people encounter not just dissolution and monsters, but some bigger cosmic Self.
I agree. Freud’s great merit was his mechanistic approach, he talks about systems – the ego system and the unconscious or id system. However, when he came to describe the quality of what the unconscious is, what you see under psychedelics isn’t really that, as you say it’s more consistent with Jung’s description of the unconscious. It’s tricky, because potentially at low doses, it may be more subtle, interpersonal insights and one’s self and relationships, whereas when the dose is higher, things might start becoming more archetypal, and be more about the history of the human animal.
What are the effects of psychedelics on memory? Freud suggested (like Wordsworth or De Quincey) that we never fully forget anything, experiences are always there in the unconscious. Do psychedelics unlock those memories?
You’ll find this in the literature – there are reports of vivid recollection. You sometimes see age regressions, people go back to being a child. Or they go back to what Stanislav Grof called ‘systems of condensed experience’ – experiences of particular salience and personal importance that the mind will go back to, and which you can sometimes re-live. This tends to happen spontaneously. It may happen when the drug is given orally rather than intravenously. A tricky issue is that when you give psychedelics, people seem to become hyper-suggestible. So there’s the question of whether this spontaneously occurs or if it’s being suggested to them.
Can psychedelic experiences be healing for people, and if so how?
Yes. There are a couple of different models. There is an idea that psychedelics can allow personal insights – if one has a disorder or some symptoms of depression or anxiety, you might experience facilitated insight into the causes of these symptoms. That’s the classic idea of psychedelics to assist psychoanalytic therapy. Other models are more pragmatic – if, under the drugs, you induce a plastic state where people are hyper-suggestible, you might have a window of opportunity where you can address fixed behaviours which probably rest on fixed connections in the brain. For instance, with depression you might have a patient who is stubbornly pessimistic. What if you give them a psychedelic drug where all of a sudden you allow them to think differently and more fluidly. You might be able to start working with their cognitive biases and to get them to question their fixed schema about who they are.
Can you do that sort of CBT approach while someone is tripping?
I don’t think you could do it while someone is in the throes of a profound hallucinogenic experience. But it does loosen people up. What Roland Griffiths says is that often the most important work happens after the experience – it increases openness to new associations.
To what extent do people have spiritual experiences on psychedelics?
The literature is rich in reports of spiritual experiences. In our own work with psilocybin, we haven’t seen it to an impressive extent, maybe because the experience is short-lived, maybe because it’s not our participants’ first time tripping, so it perhaps is less new and revelatory.
You get people like Terrence McKenna who suggest you’re not encountering something within, but also something ‘out there’ – spirits, God etc. I’m interested if people are encountering similar things out there.
Well, there is the collective unconscious, so if they experience similar entities, it might be appealing to a collective aspect of the unconscious which is about entity. Maybe it has a maternal presence. Also the wide eyes that people report around extra-terrestrials – Jung wrote about this, and suggested it might be related to memories of the mother looking down with big eyes. I find that appealing. For a materialist scientist, I don’t believe the theory that people gain access to a metaphysical or spiritual realm, I think what they have access to is the vastness of the human mind, which includes their entire history – which isn’t just human. It’s very easy to become less than objective, to believe that things are really happening, that the walls are breathing…but they’re not.
Still, I wonder if the beauty and healing of those experiences change one’s view of the unconscious – if you open up and let go of control, it can be a positive experience.
That’s probably true. My view of human nature has been changed not just through my limited research but through reading the psychedelic literature. But one thing I would say – when Freud wrote about the unconscious, one thing he emphasized is there’s no right and wrong in the unconscious. That’s why people get the ability to experience contradictory things simultaneously, like heaven and hell.
Have there been any studies of people tripping together?
Yes, I think so, in the fifties. I’d be skeptical of that sort of work, way too many confounds.
Usually people do it collectively – I’m just thinking of the setting of studies now, people on their own in hospitals.
It’s an interesting thought, it’s difficult to know what you’d infer. I recall a study where people are not talking, they’re looking each other, trying to communicate telepathically. And post-experience, they compared notes, and found they weren’t thinking about the same thing at all.
Yes, exactly, it would be interesting to test out whether people’s feeling that their minds somehow get entangled or extended is really true. But I guess mixing psychedelic research with paranormal research might be a step too far for most funders!
There are a lot of people interested in psychedelics within the research realm who are interested in that. They’ll tell you they’re skeptics, but I know they’d be very happy to find evidence of that. Of course, it would be a momentous discovery. My concern is that there’s a very strong potential for a bias around the fact that we get excited by the prospect of a complete paradigm shift. It’s a very seductive possibility, and it can cloud reason.
So it’s still difficult to get government approval for psychedelic research. What would you like to see changed?
It would be nice if they based their policy decisions on scientific evidence, and if they gave that primary consideration rather than secondary. Now they try and fit scientific data into their policies. Also it seems as though it’s relatively unproblematic to have these drugs as Schedule 1 – the idea is that shouldn’t affect research. You need a Home Office license to store and administer these drugs. The reality is these licenses are very expensive. Funders aren’t willing to pay for it. And they take a long time to set up – over a year. And there are more and more controls on the license. Things that should be relatively easy, like transferring a drug from one centre that has a license to another centre that has a license, are incredibly difficult. It’s harming the research. If this is a particularly exciting area of research, with huge potential, then these bureaucratic burdens will hold us back and handicap us.
And what, in a nutshell, is the potential?
To discover exciting things about consciousness and the brain, and to explore a truly novel therapeutic approach.
So do you think there could be psychedelic treatments of things like depression and alcoholism?
If the evidence supports it, it would be unethical not to pursue them.
There was a recent meta-study suggesting there are no harmful impacts from psychedelics. Do you really think that’s true? It doesn’t seem to be in my experience and among my friends.
I’d have to read the paper. I think it’s the same team that did the meta-analysis on LSD and alcoholism. Other meta-analysis which have looked at the potential for harm, and also surveys we’ve run, and also meta-analysis of modern research, suggests that these drugs are certainly not without potential risks. However, the risks of adverse effects are relatively small, especially compared with other drugs. It’s a tricky one, which is difficult to summarise. There are certainly potential harms.
If we think they are dissolving the ego…
You have to ask why the ego is there at all.
And if people resist that dissolution, that might freak people out.
Exactly. That may be what ‘freaking out’ is – if people hold on to their ego while it’s dissolving, that could feel like dying.
In other news:
I did a TED talk yesterday! In Breda, in southern Holland. Look, photographic proof. It will be online in a few weeks, I hope. While there I picked up a copy of this fantastic book, The Inner Game of Tennis. Published in 1972, it seems ahead of its time in its discussion of being ‘in the zone’ and of the two systems of thinking (a la Kahnemann). Great book.
Tomorrow I’m doing another talk at the Heffers classics festival in Cambridge, at 10am.
And this evening you can hear me talk about ecstatic experiences on Radio 3, at 10.45 pm. It’ll be online after that.
Here is a good review of Ronald Dworkin’s new book, about Religion Without God.
Have higher rates in anti-depressant prescriptions led to lower rates of suicide?
Here’s a study suggesting growing up in poverty affects our minds’ ability to regulate emotions (which is obviously a challenge to Stoic philosophy).
DARPA, the US Army’s research centre, has an interesting new project called SUBNETS, to research PTSD through brain-implants that can do ‘deep brain stimulation’. Bet they’re secretly making telepathic super-soldiers!
Here’s a good NYT blog on medicine’s search for meaning, and the role of emotions in healing.
As you know there’s a great event on Stoicism for Everyday Life coming up on November 30. You can see the programme and register here.
Finally, check out this mad account of the violent feud in the heart of the Karimov ruling family in Uzbekistan. It’s like an episode of the Sopranos.
See you next week,
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Then I’m going to Ffald-y-Brenin, a Christian retreat in Pembrokeshire, and a place where people have often said they’ve experienced miraculous visitations from the Holy Spirit. It is known as a ‘thin place’ – in Celtic Christianity, there are supposed to be certain places where the border between the sacred and the secular is particularly diaphanous.
Obviously, I feel like a bit of a spiritual tourist. Am I going for my own advancement as a writer, or am I going with a genuinely open heart to see what is ‘out there’? I hope the latter, but as a writer there’s always some ego mixed in.
When writing on religious group psychology, you have to decide how much you should ‘go with it’ and give yourself to the experience, and to what extent you should stay objective and detached. When Jon Ronson, one of my heroes, went on the Alpha course in 2000, he felt he couldn’t switch off his journalistic mind during the Holy Spirit session of the Alpha weekend:
James rests his hand on my shoulder. “Oh Jesus, I pray that Jon will receive Your wonderful spirit. God. Please come and fill Jon with … ” It is not working. The spell has broken. I tell James again that I’m sorry, but I’m a journalist.
I’m also a journalist, although I happen to believe in God and was helped to overcome Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder through a near-death experience which felt like an experience of grace. So I’m more open to the value of ecstatic experiences. But there are aspects of charismatic Christianity that I find off-putting. When an entire church gets ‘slain’ by the Holy Spirit, when people fall over, roll around on the ground, bark like dogs and so on, is it a visitation by God, an outbreak of mass hysteria, or some kind of learned cultural practice?
When it comes to Welsh religious revivals, Welsh Christians think of them as both a supernatural experience and a learned cultural practice. They are very aware of the history of Welsh revivals, and this knowledge creates expectations of future revivals. Wales is known as ‘the land of revivals’ – previous revivals include a Methodist revival in 1735, when congregations would shake, weep, faint and jump for joy, and a cross-denominational revival in 1859, when historians suggest 100,000 people – a tenth of the population of Wales – converted, and services were so ecstatic that ‘people were carried out of chapel unable to move hand or foot’. Both revivals were intensely musical – hymn-singing plays a central role in Celtic ecstasy.
The most famous Welsh revival was in 1904-5. It was started by a preacher called Joseph Jenkins, after he had a vision of being wrapped in a blue flame. His sermons started to inspire great excitement among his congregation, particularly young women, one of whom followed him home one night, then stood up at church the next day and declared ‘I love Jesus with all my heart’. This set others on fire, and the normal order of service gave way to spontaneous testimonials, conversions, moans, fainting and hymn-singing.
The fire spread to a 26-year-old miner called Evan Roberts, an intensely religious young man who had prayed for a revival ‘for 10 or 11 years’. He was dramatically filled by the Spirit during a service, bending his knees and crying out. The next nights, he had a series of visions, of hell, of Christ’s victory over Satan, of an enormous religious revival that would save 100,000 souls. Although not a priest and not very educated, he became the de facto leader of a revival that swept through Wales ‘like a hurricane’ as David Lloyd George put it.
A journalist who covered the revival, WT Stead, was struck by the unplanned spontaneity of the services, though in other ways, the scenes closely followed the cultural script of previous Welsh revivals – melted hearts, tears, joy, fainting, spontaneous hymn-singing, public confessions, testimonials, mass conversions, the sense of ‘a country aflame’. All of this was repeated from previous Welsh revivals. What was new in the 1904 revival was that young people, particularly young women, played a leading role, singing and giving testimonials, in a break with religious tradition. And the mass media also played a central role in the revival, helping to spread the fire through their reports – one historian calls it ‘a newspaper revival’.
As Roberts predicted, there were scores of conversions – perhaps 100,000 or so. Many alcoholics gave up drink, and supporters of the revival said the entire moral climate of the country was improved, with pubs emptied, crime down and industrial unrest quelled.
Then, after a year or so, Roberts became more and more exhausted and erratic. He would dramatically stop the singing during the services, declaring there were obstacles to the Holy Spirit’s visitation, naming people in the congregation who were obstacles, including priests. He emphasized there must be total obedience to the Holy Spirit among everyone present. He became uncertain about when it was the Holy Spirit prompting him to speak, or the Devil. He eventually retired from public life, publishing a book six years later warning of the rapid approach of the Apocalypse.
What are we to make of it all? It’s a sensitive subject, particularly for an English journalist (although as my name suggests I have a lot of Welsh blood in me). For the Welsh, the 1904-05 revival was and is a source of national pride, evidence of the country’s special relationship to God, Who speaks to their warm Celtic hearts in a way the mechanistic English could barely appreciate. The academic historian, meanwhile, might look for social or cultural causes of the revival, and interpret it as some sort of mass psychic reaction to the advance of scientific rationalism and the demands of industrial civilisation.
A colleague of mine at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Rhodri Hayward, has written an excellent book on the question of how to interpret mass ecstatic experiences like the 1904 revival, called Resisting History: Religious Transcendence and the Invention of the Unconscious. He looks at how the unconscious was invented in the late 19th century, as a way for the new secular discipline of psychology to provide a naturalistic explanation for ecstatic religious experiences like trances, automatism, visions and mass revivalism.
Rhodri traces this invention from Frederick Myers, founder of the Society for Psychical Research, who posited a subliminal self to explain the behaviour of spiritual mediums, to William James, who developed this naturalistic explanation of religious experience in his Varieties of Religious Experience, to early explorers of the unconscious like Janet, Charcot and Carl Jung, all of whom were keen to explain spiritual experiences through the naturalistic idea of the unconscious. The unconscious was a crucial device in a broader move to disenchant supernatural experiences and fit them into a naturalistic historical narrative.
What’s interesting is that the early pioneers of psychology remained very ambivalent about whether religious experiences were supernatural or not. The border between natural and supernatural explanations of ecstatic experiences remained rather thin, or diaphanous. Myers, at the end of his life, decided that some spiritual mediums really were communicating with the dead. Jung came to view much unconscious phenomena as genuine communications by spirits. William James was also convinced that some mediums were genuine and remained open-minded about whether religious experiences could be genuinely supernatural. He wrote: ‘The notion of the subconscious self certainly ought not at this point in our enquiry be held to exclude all notion of higher penetration.’
Right at the birth of psychology as a rationalist discipline, there’s uncertainty about whether the unconscious is a trash-heap of primitive impulses, or a cave of hidden treasures.
This uncertainty about apparently supernatural experiences exists for Christians too. Even during the 1904 revival, Welsh people wondered if Roberts was simply a ‘neurotic youth’, if his fits weren’t manifestations of pathology rather than divine ecstasy. One church minister wrote to the Western Mail suggesting there were, in fact, two revivals going on, a genuine revival, and a ‘bogus revival’ being led by Roberts. Roberts also became uncertain whether his visitations came from God or the Devil, and this uncertainty and sense of a cosmic spiritual war being waged in his own person eventually exhausted him.
Speaking for myself, I remain uncertain about the religious experience which healed me of years of trauma and suffering. Was it an experience of the Holy Spirit, or a moment of religious mania prompted by a near-death experience after several years of depression? If it was some sort of supernatural visitation, from who or what?
William James suggested that, even if we can’t know for sure where such experiences come from, we can still empirically weigh their effects: ‘What comes must be sifted and tested, and run the gauntlet of confrontation with the total context of experience…Its value must be ascertained by empirical methods.’
We see chroniclers of the 1904 revival trying to do just this, taking statistical evidence of the numbers of conversions in each village and town. Judged by the number of people it saved from alcoholism, the 1904 revival seems socially valuable (although Marxist historians like EP Thompson might argue that such ecstatic outbreaks put back the cause of political agitation).
It’s very difficult to empirically asses all the effects of a revival – particularly as historians can’t peer into the spiritual realm to see what might have been the effect there. Certainly, the Welsh revival had a huge impact on modern Christianity, helping to popularise a new, highly emotional form of worship which one meets on the Alpha weekend. The revival didn’t seem to have such great long-term effects for Roberts himself, though for all I know his reward was in the afterlife.
I wonder, finally, if one can combine cultural historical accounts of ecstatic experiences with an open-mindedness to the possibility that such experiences are, at least partly, supernatural. In other words, is it possible that spirits or the Spirit really do speak to humans, but that we also interpret such experiences through pre-learned cultural scripts (such as the history of Jewish messianism, or the history of Welsh revivals)? Some of those scripts are perhaps better than others, in that they more successfully ‘run the gauntlet of confrontation with the total context of experience’. I think that one problem with the Christian eschatological script is it leads to mass Millenarian expectations that the world is about to be utterly transformed into a perfect Age of Love. History has repeatedly disappointed this ecstatic expectation, yet somehow it keeps coming back.
In other news:
Talking of Millenarian expectations, the NYRB reviews a new book that looks at Millenarian expectations and the idea of the demonic enemy in fascism and communism. Behind a pay-wall alas.
The New Yorker, meanwhile, looks at a new neuroscientific attempt to measure and quantify consciousness.
I did a 5 min essay on Radio 3′s Nightwaves this week, about the 2400th anniversary of the founding of Plato’s Academy, asking whether philosophy belongs inside or outside of academia. Its 26 minutes in here.
On that theme, here’s Philosophy Bites’ Nigel Warburton, on why he’s left academia to practice philosophy outside of it. And here’s a BBC article looking at philosophy’s central role in French school education.
Here’s an New York Times article covering a successful trial of cognitive processing therapy for rape victims in the Congo.
Here’s a Spectator piece by Norman Stone looking at the political crisis in Turkey and Erdogan’s over-played authoritarianism.
Here’s a piece I wrote about the Sunday Assembly and why I don’t think God minds me playing the drums there.
Here’s a piece on how psychedelics is turning into a subject of serious academic research (man).
UCLA has a great centre for investigating mindfulness. Its website has some good free meditation podcasts.
Finally, this week I got very excited about Laura Marling’s new album. Here’s a short film she helped to make of the first four songs of the album.
See you next week,
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Windsor Hill Wood is a refuge for the wounded (particularly those suffering from substance addiction) and an experiment in communal living. It’s also a family home. The Jones children are full of life and mischief. Benedetta is at the age where she is amused by poo and wee, so, in an attempt to limit her dinner-time interjections, Toby has suggested setting aside a brief period after-dinner for ‘poo and wee stories’. Benedetta informs me of this as soon as I arrive, and says I have an hour or so to think up some good poo and wee stories. After dinner, she turns to me expectantly and says, ‘Here’s my story: when I was younger I peed in the bath. Now what’s your story?’ Grace, on my right, is amused by my name. ‘Jules? Like crown jewels?’ And she immediately sets to work making me a crown from some cardboard and feathers. I feel honoured.
Toby says he was inspired to set up the community by the Sermon on the Mount. Every morning and afternoon, he goes to prayers in the wig-wam chapel on the edge of the wood. The prayers are 15 minutes of silent contemplation, and are completely voluntary. Guests are expected to take part in woodland work in the mornings – feeding the chickens and pigs, chopping wood, making furniture in the workshop, tending to the vegetable patch, fixing stuff. Every meal is taken together.
I first came across Toby last year, at the Hay-On-Wye book festival. He was there to talk about the detective novels he writes, the profits from which he uses to subsidize Windsor Hill Wood. In the festival bookshop, I picked up his book Utopian Dreams, a brilliant account of his travels with his wife and the one-year-old Benedetta to visit various spiritual and religious communities – a Quaker retirement village, a new age commune, a Catholic village without money or TV, and finally the Pilsdon open-door community in Dorset. Their stay in Pilsdon inspired the Joneses to set up Windsor Hill Wood. The book is also a meditation on community and faith. Toby tells me: “We used to live under one shared sacred canopy – Christianity. Now faith has been privatized, and turned into a lot of little personal umbrellas.” ‘Cocktail umbrellas?’ I suggest. “Yeah, right!” And the price of that privatisation, Toby thinks, is that we have become alienated and lonely.
It’s not all bad, though, is it? I point out that the ‘shared canopy’ that existed before the Enlightenment involved the ruthless extermination of those who didn’t accept the dominant umbrella, whether that be Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Gnostics, pagans or free thinkers. And community isn’t all good: I’m quite glad I don’t live in a village where the vicar checks to see if I’m behaving myself. I like the freedom to choose my own beliefs, my own path.
Still, Toby offers a serious challenge to secular humanism, one which leaves me pondering as I drive back up the A303 to London. In Utopian Dreams, he wondered why faith seemed so important an inspiration to community. Someone in the book asks of the charitable and voluntary sector: “Where are the humanists and Fabians and socialists?” I ask Toby to explore that point further. He says:
Some friends sometimes say ‘you could do this without the religious element’, and I always reply ‘show me the atheist communities that do it. Where are the humanist communities that have an open-door policy, that genuinely look after all the people in need?’ And I’m afraid they don’t exist, or I haven’t discovered them. Even those iconic charities that are now secular in the way they run, like Save the Children or Emmaus or Amnesty International, their inspiration was religious. I’ve yet to discover the agnostic or atheist community that shows that degree of compassion. In theory, love of humanity is a sufficient motive for compassionate communities. But show it to me in practice. I’m more interested in the fruits than the roots.
If that’s the case, I ask, why would that be? Toby replies:
What does it say about religion? That it’s true. You can’t re-package religion for a secular age and say ‘the sacred is really useful, because it helps us build community and makes us compassionate, ethical people. So let’s take the Sermon on the Mount and forget about God’. That’s not going to work. The core of religion is true, not just the fringe benefits. All the other stuff is a consequence of God. I know I’m in a tiny minority, but I don’t think you can put the cart before the horse. Religion gives humanity an extra gear for cruelty and stupidity and witch-hunting and all the stupid things religions have done for millennia. But it also gives humanity an extra gear for fellowship and compassion. Religion should in theory entirely remove the focus from the self, so that the paramount thing is no longer me and what I’m going through, but something external. That works on the personal level and at the community level, because the community has something outside of itself that is sacred and paramount. We can get together to be reciprocal and compassionate to each other, but that doesn’t suffice. You need something external that gives devout purpose to a bunch of human beings.
The fruit, not the roots
This got me thinking. Certainly there are many noble charities and organisations which were inspired by religion, from the Red Cross to Alcoholics Anonymous. But there are also many worthwhile institutions that weren’t inspired by religion, such as the entire United Nations and all its works, including UNICEF and UNDP. I can also think of many humanists and atheists who have done a great deal to relieve human suffering (if we’re talking about the fruits and not the roots). Albert Ellis, the inventor of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, was a fervent atheist, and quite an egotist, but the therapy he developed has helped millions of people out of suffering. Not to mention all the scientific advances that have relieved human suffering, from penicillin to the household toilet. Some of the scientists who helped build the modern age were religious, but many were not. Some might not even have been that kind or sociable. But their inventions have dramatically improved the conditions of our life.
The secret of the modern age compared to the religious age is that it’s not about the saintly charismatic individual – the Mother Theresa or the Jean Vanier. It’s about effective laws, effective technologies and effective institutions. That might not sound very soulful but, as Jeremy Bentham pointed out, a good pragmatic reform like the minimum wage is more important to relieving human suffering than any number of saints or Salvation Armies. And sometimes good inventions and good laws are made by not very saintly people, like the philanderer Lloyd George. As Adam Smith pointed out, sometimes not very moral behaviour (like status-seeking) has pro-social benefits (like higher economic growth).
There is a big evangelical revival in western Christianity at the moment, a revival in the belief in miracles. That revival is often fuelled by westerners traveling to the Third World, particularly Africa, and witnessing miracles there. Some of my Christian friends are very inspired by this revival and the power of faith and charisma to heal sickness. In some ways, I think this revival is a flight from modernity. Look at child mortality rates or life expectancy in countries with a low level of faith and a high level of scientific expertise, like the UK, and compare it to life expectancy in African countries, which have high levels of faith and low levels of scientific expertise. Faith may sometimes work wonders, but chemotherapy cures more people of cancer. Post-religious societies like the UK are also, on the whole, less violent than intensely religious societies like, say, Pakistan, Israel or Nigeria. I know it’s simplistic to lay those countries’ problems entirely at the door of religion, but religions seem to me to get in the way of solving those problems, rather than helping people arrive at pragmatic and effective solutions.
But of course, secular liberalism has its downsides. As I put it in Philosophy For Life, we have won our privacy, but at the cost of terrible loneliness. We have relied heavily on the scientific, the instrumental, the technocratic. We have relied on scientific expertise divorced from human feeling. And that has sometimes led to vast bureaucratic institutions like the welfare state or the NHS, which can sometimes feel impersonal, un-compassionate, soulless even. They are contractual rather than transcendental. We meet in them as service-users and service-providers, rather than humans.
We still hunger for loving communities, we long to be joined together in a common sense of the sacred and transcendent. In the last few months, several humanists have suggested the need for ‘humanist churches’ in recent months, from Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists and the School of Life, to the humanist chaplains of Harvard, to the new atheist church in Islington, set up this month and run by two comedians. I’ve taught classes at the School of Life, and I think it’s a wonderful initiative. It offers ideas, stimulation and community to people without faith in God. It is a platform for some of our best thinkers and writers – this week it hosted Richard Sennett. The School means something to people. It helps them think about their values. And yet Toby’s challenge is a good one to consider.
The problems with humanist communities
Firstly, do humanist communities have good moral leaders? Do they offer us worthwhile moral patterns we can embody in our own life? Many of the most prominent humanists are prominent not because of their emotional or moral qualities, but because of their scientific skill. But not everyone can be a world-class scientist like Richard Dawkins, so that sort of leader is of limited use as a pattern to imitate. And in many humanist leaders, I see an egotism which is not present in the best religious leaders like, say, Jean Vanier. I follow one of Harvard’s young humanist chaplains on Twitter. Every other tweet of his is a retweet of a compliment someone has paid him. He seems to be motivated by the desire for publicity and approval. Nothing wrong with that. Me too, and I’m older than him and should know better. But I want my spiritual leader to be better than that. I want them to be above the desperate desire for fame and publicity that affects most of us (particularly me). I think of that line in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory.’ Thine is the glory. Without God, I think we can easily end up glorying in our own images. Watching Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe, I was amazed how often Cox’s own grinning face fills the cosmos. Again, nothing wrong with that, why shouldn’t media personalities have big egos? I’m just saying, we hope our spiritual leaders are better than that.
Secondly, do humanist communities have the emotional depth of religious communities? How low do they go? Are they capable of facing the depths to which the human spirit can sink? Are they open not just to the educated and well-heeled, but to the broken and wounded, and to human suffering in all its ugliness and awkwardness and blood and poo and wee? Much as I love the School of Life, I think it caters essentially to the middle – the middle-class, and the middle-suffering. I don’t think it would be much help to the truly broken, to the sick, to the dying. I think Roger Scruton is right that secular humanism struggles to find appropriate emotional reactions to major life events, like death. It often becomes mawkish and sentimental, or simply bathetic. Life isn’t all ha-ha hee-hee. The atheist writer Alom Shaha visited Islington’s atheist church recently, which is run by two comedians, and wrote:
The emphasis on making people laugh (which is no bad thing) may, to some extent, have been inevitable considering the background of the organisers, but I hope that The Sunday Assembly might move away from being performer and entertainment driven (similar to events like Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People) and become more, dare I say it, serious and thinker-driver (if that makes sense).
Yes, it does. But fellowship isn’t just about learning facts, nor is it about TED-like solutions for better living. It’s also about facing failure, suffering and death together.
Is it possible, then, that Toby is right, and that having something in common outside of us – God – allow us to open up and be vulnerable to each other and to share our imperfection and woundedness? Does it enable us to take off our masks and meet each other? One thing that strikes me about my Christian friends is the central importance they give to friendship and meeting. They listen to each other, honour each other. They take their relationship with God very seriously, and they also take their relationships with other humans seriously. I admire that.
Finally, does humanism place too much emphasis on the rational autonomous self? I’ve met some addicts who enjoyed reading Philosophy for Life, and who commented on the parallels between Stoicism and the various Twelve Steps programmes like AA or NA. Both, for example, emphasise knowing the wisdom of knowing what you can control and what you can’t. But AA goes deeper than that. It says that we’re not in control, we can’t do it on our own. We need God and other people to help us.
Well, this is a complex area. Let me end by telling you my poo and wee story. I had broken my leg skiing in Norway, and was flown back to the UK and picked up from the airport in an ambulance. We were driving down the M4 to London, and I needed to pee. So the medic next to me gave me a urine sample bottle to pee into. But I really needed to pee, and it became rapidly clear to me that I was going to pee more than the capacity of the bottle. ‘I’m going to fill it!’ I said. ‘Is there another bottle?’ There wasn’t. As we sped down the M4, the medic and I looked around desperately for another container. Then a voice came back from the driving seat. ‘Use this’. And the driver passed back his lunch box. Sighing with relief, I peed into that. Was the ambulance driver a theist or a humanist? I don’t know, but I was grateful for his help.
I interviewed Tobias for a podcast for Aeon Magazine, which will be released shortly.
In other news:
Here’s former LPC speaker Peter Kinderman on why grief and anxiety aren’t illnesses, with reference to DSM V.
Next Tuesday, come and hear Jacqui Dillon, director of the Hearing Voices Network in England, talk at the LPC about her experience hearing voices, why the experience can be meaningful, and how the Network helps voice-hearers to help themselves.
On February 6th, come to the School of Life and hear me talk to philosopher Havi Carel about how philosophy helped her when she faced a potentially terminal illness.
I’m launching a six-part evening course on Philosophy For Life at Queen Mary, University of London. Every Tuesday evening from 6pm to 8pm, starting Tuesday 5th February. It’s free. Details here.
The OUP has published a new Handbook on Happiness, with contributions from leading UK positive psychologists like Ilona Boniwell and Felicia Huppert, and well-being policy pioneers like Nic Marks and Geoff Mulgan. Looks great, if expensive.
Struggling to get PhD funding? Head for Asia.
Get ready for Slavoj Zizek, the opera. And three Oxford undergrads are launching John Rawls’ Theory of Justice: The Musical. I like this new trend.
Here’s an article in the Daily Mail (sorry) about the Liverpool reading project and its latest neuroscience research into what complex poetry does to our brain.
Here’s an article about Drake’s philosophy of YOLO (you only live once).
This week’s newsletter is sponsored by NIETZSCHE BARS.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
The main idea of the mass intelligentsia is that today, in the words of Bragg, “a very substantial minority is prepared to put time and effort into subjects that used to be the preserve of a very small minority”. There’s always been an intelligentsia, it’s just become a lot bigger, and turned into a mass phenomenon in the last 30 to 40 years. As David Brooks put it in the New York Times back in 2008: “People in the 1950s used to earnestly debate the role of the intellectual in modern politics. But the Lionel Trilling authority-figure has been displaced by the mass class of blog-writing culture producers.”
The chief driver behind the emergence of the mass intelligentsia, as Bragg told me, is the expansion of higher education since World War II. Back then, less than 5% of the population of OECD countries went to university. Now, the OECD average is around 35%. This expansion of higher education was part of the emergence of what Daniel Bell called ‘post-industrial capitalism’, or Peter Drucker termed ‘the knowledge economy’.
The industrial sector of the economy shrank, as did the number of blue-collar jobs, while the services sector grew, along with the middle class. Higher education expanded to create what Bell called a ‘new intelligentsia’ to work in the services sector of the economy, in academia, scientific R&D; communications, computing and digital technology; in think-tanks and policy, and in the arts.
The new intelligentsia has two wings – cultural and scientific – with quite different temperaments and attitudes. The scientific intelligentsia tends to be positivist, to believe (naturally enough) in the power of science and empirical measurement to arrive at truth and improve society. The cultural intelligentsia tends to believe in creativity and authenticity, it tends to be anti-positivistic, wary of the de-humanising potential of technological advances, and resentful of the spread of scientific metricisation into the arts and humanities. Sometimes they clash, sometimes they find compromises: Steve Jobs is a good example of someone who combined the scientific intelligentsia’s love of tech with the cultural intelligentsia’s ethos of personal freedom and authenticity.
The mass intelligentsia is characterised by the pursuit of lifelong learning. They are the creators of a new ‘learning society’. Some theorists of the learning society characterize it as a desperate attempt to keep up with rapid changes in the knowledge economy. That’s the wrong way to see it. Instead, learning is pursued by people as a good in itself. Learning is pursued for pleasure, knowledge, community and enhanced experience – and jobs are another means to those goals, rather than the end which learning serves. People work for money, but they mainly work for new learning experiences.
The transition from university to the marketplace is a continuation of the learning process, rather than the end of it. ‘Market-place’ is probably the wrong word for the modern work-space. It’s a ‘learning-space’. The best companies realise this, and adopt many of the features of a university.
Robert M. Hutchins, author of the 1968 book, The Learning Society, suggested a good model for the future society was ancient Athens, in which “education was not a segregated activity, conducted for certain hours, in certain places, at a certain time of life. It was the aim of the society. The city educated the man.”
In the learning society, leisure-time is increasingly used for intellectual stimulation. The mass intelligentsia construct thousands of informal networks, online and offline, to learn, collaborate and expand their minds. Informal learning websites like the Khan Academy, TED, In Our Time, the RSA and Philosophy Bites feed the rising public demand for intellectual stimulation. There is also a craving for new forms of intellectual community. In the 1990s, book clubs mushroomed across Britain, and the book festival scene exploded: there are today over 300 book festivals in the UK. Social entrepreneurs create new informal schools for lifelong learners, like the School of Life, the General Assembly, the Faber Academy, Mumsnet Academy, or Jamie Oliver’s Recipease.
Much of the innovation in learning is peer-led. The internet lowers the barrier for entry, and makes it much easier for small, grassroots clubs to organise themselves. The University of the Third Age is an example of what can be achieved – it started off as a top-down organisation for learning with the elderly in Australia, and then became a grassroots peer-led phenomenon here in the UK (the same thing happened with Skepticism, by the way, which was a top-down movement in the US and Australia, and then turned into a grassroots peer-led movement in the UK. It’s now a good combination of top-down organisations and grassroots clubs)
Meetup.com, in particular, sparked a revolution in peer-led learning and mutual improvement. There are today 2,162 book club meetups, 1,799 art meetups, 1,009 environmental meetups, 811 philosophy meetups, 524 Skeptic meetups, 348 animal rights meetups, 260 history meetups, 230 ethics meetups, 124 feminist meetups, 110 astronomy meetups, and 610 meetups interested in ‘intellectual discussion’. You can find, on any given evening in London, art history in the pub, philosophy in the pub, psychology in the pub, even live therapy sessions.
British universities struggled, on the whole, to recognise the potential for the new adult learning market, with the exception of the Open University, which makes 22 of the top 100 courses on iTunes U, and is the only UK university to appear in that list. Many of the most influential British intellectuals now work outside of academia. Universities have, perhaps, been weighed down by their history and bureaucracy, and can be suspicious of innovation and entrepreneurialism. However, the rise of Ed-X heralds a period of rapid change for higher education, as it finally adapts to the lifelong learning needs of the mass intelligentsia. The university of tomorrow will follow the Open University model, and have multi-media production and adult learning at its centre, rather than at the margins.
What’s wrong with the mass intelligentsia?
The growth of the mass intelligentsia is often portrayed, by elitist intellectuals, as socially and morally undesirable. Modernist intellectuals criticised it in the 1920s as the rise of the ‘middlebrow’, and the end of avant garde. In a similar vein, some recent thinkers have criticised the growth of informal learning on the internet as the triumph of the ill-informed amateur and shallow thinking. It’s also easy to criticise the commercialism of informal learning entrepreneurs like Jamie Oliver, Alain de Botton or TED’s Chris Anderson. They are giving the people what they want, rather than what they supposedly ‘need’.
The mass intelligentsia as a class are often depicted as selfish, narcissistic, obsessed with personal growth. The communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor, for example, warned in A Secular Age that the individualistic ethos of 19th and early 20th century bohemians had become a ‘mass phenomenon’ in the 1960s: now we’re all selfish seekers after personal freedom and authenticity, and have recklessly rejected the traditional forms of church, family, corporation and political party. Robert Putnam also warned of the erosion of social capital and civic virtue, while labour sociologists like Richard Sennet and Jeremy Rifkin have suggested that the knowledge economy’s increased volatility has made us lonelier, more anxious, and less virtuous. This generally negative view of the mass intelligentsia was well-expressed by Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, in which the two main characters, representatives of the cultural and scientific intelligentsia, are cut-off, selfish and morally lost.
I have some sympathy with this pessimistic narrative. It is easy to argue that the widening of education has come at the expense of a flattening. Where are the geniuses of the 19th and early 20th century, where the contemporary equivalents of Joyce, Marx, Freud, Mill, Picasso, Wittgenstein, Einstein? Where are the great plays and novels? Perhaps we are even in a period of intellectual stagnation. We have more and more media on which to communicate ideas, and ever-fewer things to say, with the result that the same ideas and case studies are endlessly recycled in books touted as the Next Big Idea.
Yet I choose to hold a more optimistic narrative. If the new intelligentsia has abandoned some of the old forms of community, it immediately set out to create new forms – like Esalen, the Californian commune so ably mocked by Houellebecq. Yes, many of these new communities turned out to be vapid, or commercial, or even cultish. But the rate of social innovation has been incredibly quick, and those forms of community that work have survived and spread. Witness, for example, the success of Alcoholics Anonymous, which is the best example of peer-to-peer learning we have.
There have been many elegies written for the end of the traditional working class, the end of socialism, the end of working men’s clubs and the worker education movement – see, for example, Jonathan Rose’s wonderful book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, the last chapter of which delivers a tirade against the ‘weekend bohemianism’ of the new mass intelligentsia. But that critique seems misplaced. The rise of the mass intelligentsia is proof that the centuries-long drive for workers’ self-education succeeded. It’s just that it didn’t create a proletarian utopia, instead it created a hugely expanded middle class. The radical ethos of informal learning via mutual improvement clubs and corresponding societies didn’t disappear, as Jonathan argues: it went mainstream, and became the modus operandi for the learning society. (I’ll send Jonathan this piece and see what he thinks).
You can criticise the mass intelligentsia as selfish and self-obsessed, as Charles Taylor does, but I think that’s unfair. We may have a problem obeying traditional hierarchies – but is that so selfish, when you consider how the Catholic Church has behaved over the last 30 years? The search for personal well-being and authenticity, which Taylor seems to find so narcissistic, has in fact rapidly led the mass intelligentsia back to ancient sources of wisdom. We’re searching for the good life. And we’re learning, increasingly, that the good life is best practiced together. We’re trying to construct non-hierarchical forms of community to practice the good life. We’re building a society that I think Aristotle would have welcomed: in which everyone has the opportunity to learn, to collaborate on meaningful projects, and to expand their awareness. That’s a society worth striving for.
Here are some interesting links I came across this week:
Yesterday I met Rob Symington, one of the founders of Escape the City, which is totally an example of what I’m talking about above: a platform, network and community to help people find learning experiences in the workplace. They have 100 meetups around the world, and have raised $600K in crowd-sourced funding on CrowdCube. Way to go!
There’s a great philosophy event next month: The Philosophical Society of England is celebrating its centenary with a weekend event, featuring Angie Hobbs talking about ‘ancient Greece and the future of philosophy’, Brenda Almond on ‘has applied philosophy lost its way?’, as well as Jonathan Ree on ‘philosophical societies and social change’. Jonathan is hopefully speaking at the London Philosophy Club in October.
Here’s a cool video on The Future of Philosophy, made by Leah Green, featuring Angie Hobbs and the London Philosophy Club.
Come to Interrogate, a festival at Dartington Hall in October, where I’ll be speaking, along with lots of other thinkers / practitioners on happiness and well-being. It will be brilliant.
Talking of happiness…I wrote this blog post celebrating English melancholy.
This account in last Saturday’s Guardian of RD Laing’s Kingsley Hall, and the orgies, LSD parties, black magic and naked wrestling that went on there, was extraordinary.
I have been doing a lot of research on Skepticism as a grassroots movement (an interesting part of the learning society). Thanks for everyone’s help with it. The community is clearly going through ‘growing pains’ as Massimo Pigliucci put it, or ‘a bit of a rough patch’, as Sid Rodrigues of Skeptics In the Pub said. Here’s one ex-Skeptic’s account of why he’s leaving the community, and here’s the founder of Atheism Plus’ account of misogyny in the Skeptic community has made her give up blogging. As a Skeptical theist (there, I said it!) I hope the community gets over this difficult patch.
At philosopher Brian Leiter’s blog, an old post that I came across and enjoyed: what are the 100 most influential philosophy books published since 2000? Above my pay grade… but I enjoyed Taylor’ Secular Age and Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought. And Sandel’s Justice – poppy, but good, and widely read.
Here’s a fascinating set of short articles by famous British philosophers in 1946, about why philosophy is in crisis and needs to connect with the wider population. Plus ca change…
Right, that’s your lot for this week. Let me know if you have any thoughts on my thesis above on the mass intelligentsia – I’m writing a report on it at the moment so would welcome any input and feedback.
PS Thank you for all the nice reviews on Amazon – 22 reviews on there now, 19 of them five-star. It’s looking hopeful for a sale to a US publisher – send me good luck in the next few days!
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Later new religious movements like the Landmark Forum, the Work, or Erhard Seminar Training would take these basic dynamics of introspection and group confessional, and strip them even further of their religious trappings, by taking away any mention of God or Jesus. But they kept the idea of the sudden conversion, the instant liberation from bad habits, which also appeals to the modern hurried sensibility: a new you, in just 24 hours!
Like Scientology today, the Oxford Group made a big thing of its connections to the wealthy and successful – the implication being that membership of the Group could give you an intro to attractive social and business connections (rather like some middle managers are attracted to Freemasonry or the Rotary Club for the networking opportunities they seem to promise).
But despite its rapid success, the Oxford Group had obvious flaws. It was corrupted by power and money. It had a charismatic and very visible leader, the Lutheran pastor Frank Buchman (pictured right), who often seemed to be on an ego trip, and who made serious errors of judgement like flirting with the Nazi Party and imagining what it would be like if Hitler or Mussolini converted to the Oxford Group and established a ‘dictatorship of God’ with the Group’s slogans blaring from every home’s radio. And the Group had an odious ethos of social climbing and donation-seeking – Buchman encouraged Group members to travel first class, in order to network, and public talks would sometimes end with solicitation for funds – although none of this money was ever spent on the poor or the needy.
The birth of AA
One Oxford group in the US helped an alcoholic called Ebby Thacher, in the early 1930s, who in turn tried to bring religion to a drinking buddy, Bill Wilson. Bill also converted, but still occasionally relapsed into alcoholism. He managed to finally kick the habit at a rehab centre when he had a religious experience after being given the hallucinogenic Atropa Belladonna, or deadly nightshade (research into using hallucinogenics to cure addictions is only now coming back into the mainstream of respectable science – see this article.)
Bill then travelled to Akron, Ohio in 1935, where he stayed with an Oxford Group member and alcoholic called Bob Smith. Bill worked with Bob for a month, and he too managed to kick the habit. Over the next few years, the two developed the format of Alcoholics Anonymous: first the 12 Steps, then the 12 Traditions. AA members say the 12 steps stop them from killing themselves, and the 12 traditions stop them from killing each other. They’re really interesting principles, which have stood the test of time without any major revisions.
The first and second steps involve the Lutheran admission that ‘we are powerless and our lives have become unmanageable’ and therefore need help from ‘a Power greater than ourselves’. This is very different from the Stoic idea, for example, that the power and responsibility to help yourself is always yours alone. In AA, the alcoholic’s first step is admitting they have a disease which they on their own can’t solve – they need the help of a Higher Power. It’s not self-help, so much as other-help.
Who or what is this Higher Power? The 12 Steps define it as ‘a God of your own understanding’. Bob Wilson noticed more alcoholics were attracted to and helped by AA if it didn’t make a big thing of religious dogma, but allowed people to bring their own definitions of God – which could simply be the Higher Power of the group or movement (some AA members define God as Group Of Drunks, implying that ‘God’ is really human consciousness organizing itself to heal itself).
What was most important was the idea of people helping each other up, and sharing their stories – AA took the group confessional format of the Oxford Group, and added the idea of having a sponsor who could guide the new recruit through the 12 steps. They also added the idea of ‘making amends’ – going round apologizing to those you’ve done wrong in the past (this is the conceit behind the sitcom My Name Is Earl). And, importantly, they focused on one key sin or disease – alcoholism. They gave their members a sense of collective identity through their battle with their illness. They took something that was private and shameful, and made it into a collective struggle and source of group pride: ‘It’s been ten years since I had a drink’ etc.
That laid a template for self-organized mental health support groups for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, drug addiction, sex addiction, really every kind of personal problem (there’s even a 12-step programme for online gaming addiction, called OLGA). Even if these groups don’t all use the 12-step programme, they still use the idea of a group self-organized to combat a particular problem, who share their stories with each other and encourage each other on.
Personally, I found that group dynamic very helpful when I was struggling to overcome social anxiety, which I did after joining a CBT-based social anxiety support group, that met once a week in the Royal Festival Hall. When you share your stories and listen to others’ stories, you realize your problems are not unique, that you’re not a uniquely dysfunctional freak (as you secretly feared), that many others have similar problems. It de-personalizes the problem, makes you less attached to it, makes you able to see it as a collective battle with an external enemy (alcoholism, depression, social anxiety etc) to be fought with intelligence and organization. In some ways, this is like Christians sharing stories of the Devil and self-help tips on how to resist his evil snares – except that, while AA kept the idea of the Higher Power, it turned the Enemy of alcoholism into a disease, rather than a supernatural evil force. They also abandoned any mention of Hell or damnation – if you fall, you just get up, and try again.
Behind the Christian roots of AA, there are older, Socratic ideas: the idea of examining yourself to find any defects or vices, and also the Serenity Prayer, which was introduced into AA in the 1940s, and is now read at the end of every meeting: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Bill Wilson wrote that this prayer summed up the ethos of AA, though to me it seems a bit different from the Lutheran idea of being powerless to help yourself without the intercession of a Higher Power. It’s interesting, though, the way someone came across the Serenity Prayer and it was then introduced into the ‘ritual’ of the AA meeting. That’s how religions are created – objects and ideas are found, then bolted on, and you can see different ideas and traditions stuck together.
Like every vibrant young spiritual movement, within a few years AA found itself immersed in internal arguments over how the movement should develop. At that point, in 1946, Bill Wilson wrote and published the 12 Traditions (somewhat reminiscent of the 12 foundations of the New Jerusalem mentioned in Revelations). These 12 traditions fixed AA into a system that Wilson called ‘benign anarchy’. As my AA friend put it, “it’s like a terrorist organization: each cell is separate and they don’t know much about each other”. There’s little central authority, no requirement for membership other than the desire to stop drinking, and a group could be just two people, like the original group.
Wilson obviously learnt from the mistakes of the Oxford Group – first of all, he protected AA from the corrupting influence of money. Every AA group is self-supporting, with no outside financial contributions, so it hasn’t become a machine for making money, as the Oxford Group did and other groups like Landmark and Scientology have done. No AA member is allowed to lend its name to other causes, and it avoids the temptation to seek political influence through its success, as the Oxford Group did. And because it’s anonymous, no member can use the movement as a platform for self-promotion, as Frank Buchman arguably used the Oxford Group. As the 12th tradition puts it: ‘Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.’
The 12 traditions are a masterpiece of organizational design, and have kept AA preserved from the corrupting influences that have brought down so many other spiritual movements: all of which follow a sadly predictable arc of hype, wealth and power followed by disintegration (think of, say, EST, or the Secret, or Landmark and so on). Today, the movement has over two million members, with over 100,000 groups meeting worldwide. I’m told you can find a meeting happening at any hour of the day in New York. And on some flights, you might even hear an announcement on the intercom inquiring if there is a ‘friend of Bill’ on-board. From an outsider’s perspective, AA seems to me to be one of the more successful new spiritual movement of the 20th century. But, as I said at the beginning, I haven’t tried it myself, so would be interested to hear if some of you have more first-hand impressions of it.
Waterstones is launching its own e-reader. Good idea:
David Cameron got a bit Neo-Aristotelian in his latest speech on education, declaring: ‘education doesn’t just give people the tools to make a good living – it gives them the character to live a good life, to be good citizens’.
Here’s the first episode of Radio 4′s new pub philosophy show, The Philosophy Arms. It’s about the ‘happiness machine’, and features another Neo-Aristotelian, universities minister David Willets, defending an Aristotelian conception of happiness.
Here’s Geoff Dyer giving a recent lecture at Queen Mary University about the essay (skip to five hours in!)
Here’s a Stephen Pinker review of Roy Baumeister’s new book, Willpower – he’s doing a talk at the Manhattan Institute on September 22nd, for any New Yorkers out there.
And finally, here’s a story about a drunken elk getting stuck in a tree in Sweden. Clearly misinterpreted the whole ‘higher Power’ thing.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>