Oliver Robinson: science and spirituality

On 5 July, 2018, at Swedenborg Hall in London, Dr Oliver Robinson launched his new book, Paths between Head and HeartIt is already available for pre-order, and will be released in the UK on 31 August and in the USA on 28 September.

Before we see Olly’s launch speech, and also in explanation of my using that diminutive of his name, I must declare an interest. Olly is my nephew and godson, I already have my copy of the book, and I’m enjoying reading it.

I find the subject matter so fascinating that it is a bit of a chore for me to wear my rhetor hat at all, but that’s what this blog is for so I’ll don it briefly.

He’s been here before, in April 2015. Apart from praising his overall speaking I got a little picky about over-use of visual slides, something that is widespread everywhere and almost universal in academe; and also I felt that he was trying to protect his nerves by adopting a persona mask which hid too much of his personality.

Here, he’s come out from behind any mask and is all the more engaging for it.

My guidance on any slide is that thinking it might add something is not enough: it should be included only if its absence would significantly impoverish that part of the speech. The danger of not following that principle is that you find yourself in competition with your own visuals. The editor of that video has limited our exposure to his slides, but I still think he has too many. (Speaking of editors, slides are very useful for hiding edit-points so his editor was probably grateful.)

There’s another factor here which I find interesting. I urge my trainees to speak with their audience, as opposed to at them. I also tell them that passion is worth buckets of technique. Here I am torn over whether his conveying his evident passion for the subject is causing him to lose some of the warmth that you get when you speak with the audience. It’s a balancing act, and the tightrope is very thin. I remind myself that he is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Greenwich, and that sort of lecturing tends to lean towards the at preposition to keep students paying attention. I’m in two minds.

On the other hand I am single-minded in wanting to discuss the subject matter of the talk and the book, because I find it fascinating.

On this blog I have covered several speeches from atheists, and I find it tedious that they persist in assuming atheism to be half of a binary choice, the other half being religion. That is intellectually idle: there is another choice. You can be spiritual without espousing a religion. In fact religions carry so much political and doctrinal baggage that their spiritual side gets easily overlooked.  Years ago on this blog I covered six adversarial speeches from an Oxford Union God Debate, and I don’t think the word ‘spirit’ came up once. All the atheists focussed on debunking the doctrine, and ignored the spiritual. They always seem to, and who’s to blame them when religions focus on doctrine also.

In September at Imperial College in London there will be an event consisting of a conversation between Alan Lightman and Richard Dawkins entitled Science and Religion – two truths or one? At a glance you might think they are covering the same ground as Olly, but they’re not. However interesting the event turns out to be that title assumes the same false binary choice and therefore signals a much narrower path.

Though I don’t see him often enough to sit and talk quietly I’ve known for some time of Olly’s interest in the relationship of science and spirituality. I have harboured an excitement to learn more of what he’s found. From this talk I expect to be in for a treat as I dig deeper into the book.

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