Filling in the gaps between religion and philosophy – is this what a secular approach to Buddhism does?

On a recent holiday in the UK, I went to How The Light Gets In – a festival of philosophy and music from the Institute of Arts and Ideas (IAI). It’s held at Hay-on-Wye, a small market town just inside Wales, on the border with Herefordshire. The IAI has been described as Britain’s equivalent to TED and the event takes place at the other end of town from the Hay Book Festival during the same fortnight in May.

The tiny town is buzzing with people and the market square, Corn Exchange, narrow lanes and bridges full of reader and writer types. All the sessions were videoed and the talks are gradually appearing online, which is great because they are an absolute feast of ideas and research.

Some have already been uploaded and there are many videos from previous conferences. Here are a few summaries of the sessions I attended.

Tim Lott is a novelist who writes for The Guardian. His talk was about the difference between the eastern and western concepts of free will and fate. In ‘The Art of Freedom,’ he showed how the western argument about whether freedom exists to be a largely fruitless exercise. Other speakers at the conference had made alternative cases: that we are completely free, or we are little more than mannequins at the whim of drivers, habits and intimidation. Lott also discussed how for all the belief that choice is a great thing, that too much choice can beguile and disappoint us.

Next a panel of academics including multiverse cosmologist Laura Mersini-Houghton, CERN physicist John Ellis and philosopher of science James Ladyman discussed looking for nothing, which turned out to be strangely elusive. Many ideas were canvassed: nature abhorring a vacuum; space is not a nullity and has to be defined in relation to what it contains; and thinking of no elephants brings about the idea of an elephant. Even the use of zero in mathematics was described as a useful abstraction to make equations work. It was a joyful hour with a series of clever people riffing on an idea as others might play with guitars and drums: for the sheer joy of it.

In the session ‘Can evolution ever explain consciousness?’ Eva Jablonka, an Israeli theorist and geneticist known for her interest in epigenetic inheritance, described her work on the nature of consciousness and identified the difficulties of defining it. She abstracted from how we define whether life is present (movement, reproduction, responsiveness, respiration etc) as a model for defining what the components of consciousness might be.

Marxist historian Terry Eagleton’s address has been published online here and the video of his talk ‘The Death of God and the War On Terror’ is already online. Of all the presentations, this one had the most urgent contemporary relevance. Eagleton talked about how the birth of western, value free commerce and the rise of the primacy of the market could be equated with Nietzsche’s ideas about the death of God.

This in turn has helped to foster the resurgence in religious fundamentalism by people who are in the main have been dispossessed, humiliated and marginalized often by the secular free market ideologies of the west. He doesn’t go as far as saying that the market is simply another form of religion or draw a link between market fundamentalism and other kinds of fundamentalism, but his talk begged these questions.

Finally, in a more esoteric vein, Rupert Sheldrake described how Christian rituals operate like social glue, and are as important in engendering a sense of community as Christian beliefs. His views of consciousness were much more spiritual: consciousness as an evanescent force within the universe not confined to brains.

If you have a decent broadband plan, there is much thought provoking material. If you are in the UK with a week or two to spare in 2016 I couldn’t recommend the festival more highly as a place to hang out, listen and participate

I feel intrigued and compelled to understand more of these kinds of issues that seem to skirt the boundary between philosophy and ethics, and which speak to the value of meditation. Do you think there is a discussion to be had about how a secular approach to Buddhism fits into the space between religion and philosophy? Human ‘beliefs’ about the nature of consciousness and of free will are very diverse. What importance do you think this diversity makes to our ability to build a strong sense of a community bound by ethics rather than faith?

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