I often get invited to events through groups I have joined on Facebook or my membership of email lists, and have only the very vaguest idea of who it was who asked me. Tonight was one of those – my Facebook page announced that I had said I would attend a free lecture on “What has Philosophy Got To Do With Religion?”, and given that one of my standard responses to people asking me “what do you do?” is “er, philosophy of religion” (– it makes them go away I find, and sounds better than “hunt ghosts and argue on the internet”) — well I felt kind of obliged. The fact the lecture was taking place within a gentle stroll of my house probably helped too.
“Why do I go to lectures?” would be a more useful session for me to attend, given that I invariably fall asleep, or become incredibly bored, or gaze out the window and think about when this room was the SU Bar, and Roger Puplett used to rip his shirt off while playing Van Halen’s Jump as last record of the night, and … see?!! I have the attention span of a newt on uppers: I find it hard to sit still for 5 minutes, and almost impossible to go two minutes without asking a question. It’s bad enough when I’m lecturing, I get bored by my own lectures, and tell the audience that frequently.
Well given I hate sitting through lectures, was stuck by a hissy radiator turned on full blast that slowly baked me and the room was too full to sneak out to get a drink, I should have hated this. Given Mark Vernon announced that his talk had three parts, and would last 45 minutes, and that after two parts were on 45 minutes and he stopped to ask if he should proceed, hell I should have been crawling up the walls. Yet so effective a speaker is Vernon that we all asked him to continue, and I’m sure would have stayed much longer if it was not for the heating stuck on (I crept out to the SU bar and got a drink at the beginning of questions, but returned to loudly ask more as is my nature 🙂 )
Vernon read his presentation: a long introduction on Aurignacian art, which I was confused a little by the relevance of, then a rather succinct but fun critique of EvoPsych stuff on religion, and Hyper-Sensitive Entity Detection stuff like Dennett’s ideas, and those of Bruce Hood – he has more time for Scott Atran, but still regard him as wrong from what I can make out — and a short but well aimed attack on over generalising modular mind theorists (folks like Steven Mithen?), with some interesting research cited. I would hesitate to use as Vernon appeared to (in passing, as a minor point) Developmental Psychology as a way to judge how early human psychology evolved; but compared with some of the problems with the Evo-Psych approaches, that is easily forgiven, and I may have misunderstood. It was really hot, and the radiator was annoying me with its hiss, burble, hiss, while slowly cooking me. I wished more of my friends from Skeptics in the pub were present (any of them actually) — some Skeptics often seem to buy wholesale highly questionable EvoPysch “just so” stories without any real effort at critical analysis or awareness of the problems with them in my experience, just as earlier generations of rationalists embraced Frazerian and Comptean ideas of Religion with equal fervour. (Occasionally one sees all three argued in the same forum thread on certain New Atheist sites… 😉 ) Mark Vernon’s objections would have perhaps made it clear that these theories are not just contested, they are highly controversial, even among Evolutionary Psychologists and evolutionary biologists and morphologists, let alone cognitive scientists.
I found it hard to concentrate because of the heat, but Vernon kept me listening, and I was particularly interested in some of the paleontologist Simon Conway-Morris’s ideas. Graham Budd had mentioned him to me recently, and I will definitely look up his work, and would have by now if Wikipedia was not down today in protest over SOPA. Vernon acts as a great introduction to others ideas: he seems astonishingly well read, ad his reading particularly showed in the second part, which was on being good without God.
I have long been of the opinion that one can be good without God – inevitably the Euthyphro Dilemma came up in the questions, but agree with Vernon the best modern explorations of the issue are by Richard Holloway. It was in this section the temperature finally proved too much for me, and I began to think about a question the friendly gentleman from the Bible Society sitting in the row in front of me had asked me before talk began about how authentic a lot of ‘Celtic Spirituality’ was to the historical roots. Not sure how we got on to it, but I’m quite sceptical on the issue, and I started daydreaming about writing a blog piece on it, only to reconnect with the talk somewhere about Iris Murdoch on morality, God and Truth and have no idea what was going on. Fortunately as part 3 commended I was on safer ground – for now Vernon turned to the soul, and the question of post-mortem survival.
Vernon made some excellent points about afterlife in various religious traditions, and the development thereof, but this will be very familiar to anyone who has read my review of Christopher Moreman’s Beyond the Threshold and hence lost some of its force which I think lay in how surprising these things are to most people. Ditto with Vernon’s emphasis on Reconstituitionalism, the merging of the soul with a new body at Resurrection, as being the New Testament view of afterlife. (As I remarked in questions, one of them. I think there are at least two, if not three views of life after death in the New Testament writings, by no means necessarily incompatible). There was a brief discussion of the odd character of the resurrection appearances, which always reminds me of a wonderful passage from Tyrell’s Apparitions I think, but I will leave that to a later post as I have been planning to explore it for years. Anyway I don’t agree Reconstituionalism is the only viable reading of the NT texts on afterlife, but it is certainly a strong theological tradition, and the great sceptic and CSICOP founder member Martin Gardner (who hoped for life after death himself) gives an excellent overview of it on his The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. as I recall. Vernon gave a good overview of Aquinas I think, not that I have ever managed to really grasp Aquinas on the Soul or Life after Death, not least I suspect because some of his ideas are actually contradictory, or divergent. This has inspired me to take another look.
Anyway I had never heard of Mark Vernon before tonight, but excellent speaker, and I will check out his books, such as his latest “How to be an Agnostic”. His website is here, do go take a look. and do catch him at one of his upcoming event s listed there – well worth seeing.
As an aside, I was shocked to learn that despite the Premises and Services Agreement between the University and the Student Union that was agreed when I was there, the SU has now lost control of the bars at the University of Gloucestershire, which are now run by a third party company. None of this was reported in the local press or even on the uni website as far as I know; I have been assured by a friend that a deal was struck to protect the Student Welfare aspects of the SU’s work, which was always funded by the profits from the bars and Summer Balls in the past. I won’t mourn this change, it may be for the better, and my loyalties lie with the College of St Paul and St Mary and CGCHE, predecessor institutions, but I was very surprised to hear from the staff the SU bar was no longer that, while getting a drink.
Ah well, the room TC007 where we had the talk was once the SU Bar, before it moved upstairs to its present location, so change can be good I guess. I recalled sitting there tonight walking in there in 1987, and being hit on the head by an ashtray and nearly knocked out when I first entered the room; and then 1992, and watching the news coverage of the LA riots which was playing on the big screen, Hugh and I (with severe sunstroke) danced 17 minutes to Sister Ray by the Velvet Underground before I vomited in a loo that once stood roughly where I was sitting tonight, and collapsed there with a terrible headache. Now it’s a bland lecture room. Such are memories – inappropriate, intrusive. Years ago I taught in a uni classroom that had previously been a female friend’s dormitory room – that jarred, and was almost awkward. Who says there are no ghosts? 😉