Friday round-up of the best from psychology, philosophy and the politics of well-being

Hi everyone, from now on these newsletters are going to be more what they were originally intended to be: a collection of links to interesting stuff I’ve read, or written about, in the last week. You can sign up to the newsletter in the box on the right.

Here’s an interesting article in The Atlantic about the ‘new philosophy of cosmology’, looking at a group of rising star philosophers who are taking the fight to Stephen Hawking (remember how he said philosophy was ‘dead’) and insisting that philosophy can help unpack some of the conceptual issues in cosmology and astrophysics.

Here’s an excellent radio show by Robin Ince on Bertrand Russell and how he was the first ‘media don’, thanks to his appearances on the radio. It includes this funny comedy sketch about Russell from Beyond the Fringe.

Here’s an interesting and challenging new report from my friends at the Social Brain project at the RSA, on how to train up ‘big citizens’ with the mental and emotional competencies to engage effectively with the Big Society. The authors write:
Not everybody is ‘up to it’ in the same way. Acquiring the relevant competencies is a developmental challenge that requires a level of mental complexity, described by Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan as ‘self- authoring’, in which we develop ‘a relationship to our reactions’. Available evidence suggests this level of mental complexity is not currently widespread in the adult population. For the Big Society to take root, we need to invest more time and energy making sure that the forms of participation and engagement called for as part of the Big Society are supported by formal and informal adult education.

I would pose two questions to the authors, one theoretical, the other practical. Theoretically, are they suggesting that all humans follow one path of development, which Kegan happens to have discovered, and that governments should guide us all along this path? My problem with developmental psychologists is that they all claim to have found the exact map that the mature adult must follow. But I’m not sure human development follows a straight line, or obvious courses. And it’s handing a great deal of authority to Kegan to say that he’s discovered this path and we all must follow it.

Secondly, the practical problem: how do the authors suggest the adult population would be ushered along the path to maturity? Would there be ‘mental complexity booths’ outside Tube entrances where adults could go for a quick cognitive re-programming? Is the science of Kegan’s developmental psychology so definitely right that the government should intervene into the psyches of the adult population on that scale? What if people refuse to be re-programmed? I look forward to debating these questions next time I see the authors!

Here’s a very good new book by the Institute of Economic Affairs, the UK’s oldest think-tank, slamming the new politics and economics of happiness. Paul Ormerod’s first chapter is particularly good. I agree with him: the politics of well-being often hands too much power to the clipboard-wielding ‘experts’, who supposedly know better than we do what’s good for us.

Here’s a good piece by New York City’s controller of education, on why children have become over-networked and over-distracted by multi-media, and should be taught the art of solitude and deep reading. Nice quote from Epictetus in there.

Here’s a review I wrote of Tali Sharot’s new book, The Optimism Bias, which I suggest is overly simplistic, and overly pessimistic about humans’ ability to balance out our cognitive biases. I debated Sharot on Radio 3′s Night Waves on Monday, there’s a link to the discussion in the piece.

Here is a link to Alain de Botton’s interesting TED talk on his new book, A Religion for Atheists, and some thoughts of mine on the project. I suggest that if De Botton is serious about starting up a ‘religion for atheists’, as I think he is, then he needs to move beyond instrumental techniques, and be clearer about the ethics and values that this religion would embrace. A community without shared ethical commitments is not much of a community, in my opinion. He was kind enough to respond generously on Twitter.

Here is a piece by John Gray in the new issue of Prospect, saying Sigmund Freud is unfashionable today because he refuses to flatter mankind. Freud, Gray argues, put forward a sort of ‘Stoic ethics’ for the modern world. And here is a response where I disagree, and argue that people (ie me) dislike Freud today because he tried to turn his philosophy of pessimism into a rigid, over-dogmatic science, which wasted a lot of money and time, and caused more human suffering than it cured.

Finally, here is a very funny account of the infamous Brindley lecture on erectile disfunction (thanks to Sam Jordison for sharing this).

See you next week,



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