Featuring: Sam Coleman, Hannah Critchlow, Donald Hoffman
The relationship between the individual human subject and the world was once the central focus of Western philosophy. Modern neuroscience has instead tended to assume that the world is purely material and physical, and the problem of consciousness a question of how to generate thought from matter. Yet, we are no closer to solving the deep puzzle of consciousness and many argue that the American philosopher Thomas Nagel is right when he maintains that the question of consciousness 'cannot be detached from subject and object'.
Is the notion that the world is purely material a fundamental mistake? Would we be more likely to unlock the mysteries of consciousness by once again adopting the framework of the subject and object? Or will slow, piecemeal advances in neuroscience and analytic philosophy eventually yield the answers that we have been searching for?
Featuring: Peter Hitchens, Bronwen Maddox, Paul Mason
In the wake of the Ukraine invasion many in West described Putin as crazy, even claiming clinical insanity. Yet for 30 years, in frequent speeches Putin repeatedly stated that Russia and Ukraine were 'one people' likening a hostile Ukraine to 'a weapon of mass destruction'. And when Xi Jinping called for an era of 'Chinese reunification' in 2012, equating Hongkongers to 'terrorists' many failed to predict the decimation of democratic freedoms in that country. Are we making a fundamental error, risking global catastrophe, in imagining that others think like us and failing to properly listen to what they actually say?
Should we recognise that our worldview is one amongst many, and seek to understand the perspectives of others even if we do not agree with them? And will this enable us to keep one step ahead in a dangerously treacherous world? Or does this risk undermining belief in our own outlook and values, and threaten our very existence?
In association with The Week.
Featuring: Peter Singer, Tamar Gendler, Julian Baggini
For centuries morality has distinguished between human agency and inaction. From initiating a conflict to ignoring one, and from starting a fire to failing to rescue someone from the flames, we often punish those who act over those who don't. But many now argue this approach is mistaken. When two year old Wang Yue was run over twice, the world was outraged by the 18 passers-by who turned a blind eye. Yet in practice, the same outrage wasn't shown when we failed to save any of the 5.4 million children under five who died last year from preventable causes.
Is our emphasis on human agency over inaction a fantasy to justify our moral negligence? Would emphasising the failure to act mark a shift to a radically communitarian society where the needs of the many would be seen as more important than those of the individual? Or are these categories of agency and inaction both defensible and necessary for a free civilisation?
Featuring: Esther Freud, Sophie Fiennes, Sir David Hare
From Beethoven's 5th to Batman, Harry Potter to Hamlet, we want and expect satisfying endings that tie up loose ends and provide resolution. But real life doesn't often come tied up so neatly. Relationships and careers often evolve in tangled confusion with transitions that can leave messy legacies. And, as TS Eliot said, often things end "not with a bang but a whimper."
Is it our stories and narratives that are in error, or the way we run our lives? Many have sought to create novels or films that have less defined or multiple endings but they have rarely succeeded. Is a successful non-narrative structure possible or even desirable? Then again, are weddings and birthdays, leaving parties and national holidays, a means to impose order on lives that are never ordered?Would we be better to impose more structure or should we accept our lives as fluid and in a sense unknown?
Not so long ago many scientists, and Stephen Hawking central among them, claimed the theory of everything was just round the corner. But as we go from classical mechanics to quantum mechanics to string theory and loop quantum gravity - everything seems to be getting more and more complicated. Far from being round the corner it now looks less and less likely. In 2010 Hawking changed his mind and abandoned the theory altogether in favour of a different account of science altogether, model theoretic realism.
Was Hawking right, does the end of the theory of everything point to a bigger shift in our understanding of what science itself can achieve? Is science not capable of ultimately describing reality at all, let alone being complete? Or is there a possible model that could be so effective that it could be deemed to be true?
For much of the 20th century language was seen as central to our understanding of the world. Wittgenstein famously claimed, 'the limits of my language mean the limits of my world'. Derrida, 'there is nothing outside of the text'. But now it seems language is being quietly jettisoned as either containing puzzles that are insoluble, or irrelevant to the real issues facing us. A major American philosopher, Hilary Putman, went as far as to say "the project to describe the relationship between language and the world is a shambles".
Are we right to conclude that the puzzle of language and the world is not solvable? Should we double down on our efforts to crack the problem of language and not give up? Or can we comfortably focus not on the medium but on the message, and return to an era before the so-called 'linguistic turn' when language was seen as transparent and the core topics of debate were our beliefs and theories?
“Independence is a heady draft" claimed Maya Angelou. We view independence as a virtue, one that we crave for ourselves and admire in others. But is our pursuit of independence a mistake? In the US in the last fifty years, the number living alone has doubled, but we aren't happier for it. A recent study found those living alone had an 80% higher chance of being depressed.
So how do we rescue our culture from this grave danger? Should we place community at the heart of our thinking, and take heed from other cultures who embrace a more connected form of intergenerational living? Or could we accept the death of tribal family structures altogether, and embrace the new wave of co-living communes outside the family unit, OR do the stats mislead us, and fail to capture just how stifling and oppressive communal life can be?
From Pythagoras to Plato, we think that maths can reveal objective truth and uncover the nature of reality. But the majority of mathematics does not describe reality - from countless spatial dimensions to actual infinities. In the words of mathematician Sir Roger Penrose, maths is "full of things that have almost nothing to do with the physical world." But if this is the case, how can we know which of our mathematical theories describe reality and which are just, again in the words of Penrose, "playing around with mathematics for its own sake"?
Should we treat maths as a tool, rather than an insight into ultimate reality? Should we consider maths as demonstrating human reasoning in its most exact form - nothing more, nothing less? Or might we one day prove mathematics really does have a special metaphysical standing and grasp on truth?
When asked, “All things considered, is the world getting better or worse?”, a majority in the West answer 'worse' and 56% of young people believe that the 'world is doomed'. Despite this, whether it be extreme poverty halving since 1990, a 15-fold reduction in death from violence, or average life expectancy increasing by 30 years since 1960, the facts suggest this to be mistaken. Whilst pessimism seems to make all the headlines, recent studies show that such an outlook can lead to personal hostility, contempt, political disengagement and even support for the far right.
Does the West need a New Enlightenment to create meaning beyond providing its citizens with basic necessities, and reverse the current tide of pessimism? Has the West's relatively slow growth, versus the East's rapid emergence, radically changed our perspective of the world? Or is pessimism a key force that drives us to improve society and confront the greatest challenges facing us today?
For centuries we have assumed reason to be ruthlessly independent of passion or emotion. Yet Nietzsche argued "reason is an emotional experience'', and now neuroscientists have shown sad moods can trigger systematic and logical thinking. Furthermore, studies have shown that emotion plays a crucial part in grounding reason in reality, essential to our being able to make decisions.
Is it a mistake to think reason and emotion are quite separate, and instead conclude they are deeply connected? Does this threaten the calm and considered assessment of events required for social wellbeing and decision making? Or does it liberate us to think afresh knowing that there isn't only one rational way to think?
In association with TLS.
In the first half of the twentieth century a whole range of radical thinkers, from Einstein to Schrödinger, Russell to Wittgenstein, Woolf to de Beauvoir, were transforming our ideas. But many now wonder where the equivalents are today and point to a fundamental error. Universities and research labs have become increasingly specialised and focus on small 'piecemeal advance’ leaving little room for originality and big thinking. Studies confirm a bias against publishing novel research and 90% of papers remain uncited, and possibly unread, by anyone.
Is the academy and our culture as a whole in desperate need of newer, bigger ideas? Do we need to encourage a less specialised and broader approach to create the breakthroughs and radical ideas of the future? Do we need to change the way university appointments are made and articles reviewed to escape conventional set thinking? Or have the big theories largely been found already and we have only now to fill in the gaps?
In association with TLS.
‘Experiment is the sole judge of scientiﬁc “truth”,’ declared the physicist Richard Feynman. Ever since the Enlightenment science has been based on the idea that its theories are testable. But now many argue our grandest scientific theories, from string theory to multiverse theory, have no experimental evidence and some claim they are even in principle untestable.
Should we conclude that these theories are not science at all but mere fictional speculation? Or is it enough for a theory to be beautifully coherent and helpful in simplifying our understanding? Then again, is the very idea of experimental proof itself mistaken, since the results are unavoidably interpreted in the light of the theory they are seeking to verify?
The Big Bang theory crucially depends on the 'inflation' hypothesis that at the outset the universe expanded many orders of magnitude faster than the speed of light. But experiments have failed to prove evidence of cosmic inflation and since the theory's inception it has been beset by deep puzzles. Now one of its founders, Paul Steinhardt has denounced the theory as mistaken and 'scientifically meaningless'. Cosmology, it seems, is in crisis once again.
Do we have to give up the theory of cosmic inflation and seek a radical alternative? Might alternative theories like the Big Bounce, or abandoning the speed of light provide a solution? Or are such alternatives merely sticking plasters to avoid the more radical conclusion that it is time to give up on the Big Bang altogether?
"Death is simply a technical problem for which there are technical solutions" claims Yuval Harari. But if the last few years have taught us anything, it is surely that unpredictable disease is the human condition. And with 2.8 million deaths due to antibiotic resistance each year and funding for a solution decreasing by 87% in the US, it seems that a new health crisis is only just beginning. Experts now claim that "we are facing a post-antibiotic apocalypse" and it is clear that death is not a problem that doctors are close to fixing.
Should we conclude that there is an indefinite amount about disease that we do not, and will never, understand? Are we fighting a losing battle, and antibiotic resistant superbugs and emerging diseases will eventually show our successes in health to be a temporary blip in human history? Would we be better to accept that doctors are not gods and cannot save us from death? Or can medicine and technology be combined to make us super human after all?
During the 60's it became fashionable to argue that we should discharge long term patients from mental hospitals and give them the freedom to integrate into society. Since then the numbers in mental hospitals have fallen dramatically with rates decreasing by 400%. But critics argue that this has been a fundamental mistake and that over the same time prison rates have increased 425% with the result that we have replaced asylum with prison and traded one form of incarceration for another.
Should we reverse the policy of discharging mental patients and build new hospitals to address the problem? Or is this a naive conclusion that would condemn thousands to permanent institutionalisation and recreate this misery of asylums of old? Or do we need an entirely new approach to prison and psychiatric treatment and an end to categorising the socially disruptive as either mad or bad?
From Rubens to Rembrandt, we used to see art and beauty as inseparable, but in the 20th Century, beauty for many became a dirty word, as Duchamp's 'Fountain' set the tone for a radical new perspective in visual art. But was this an error? According to public surveys, we don't recognise many of the key works of the 20th Century as valuable art, only 12% consider Tracey Emin's 'My bed' as being worthy of the term. Critics like the philosopher Roger Scruton have gone further arguing "we are losing beauty, and there is a danger that we will lose the meaning of life".
Have we been hoodwinked by Saatchi, and the art market? Is contemporary art the ultimate advertising con in turning the valueless into the most highly valued? An exercise in money-making rather than an exploration of being? Or was much of 20th Century art right in viewing beauty as a clichéd dead end?
By many objective measures the lives of women have improved hugely in the last fifty years. Yet a number of surveys including the US National Bureau of Economic Research have shown that women's happiness has fallen both absolutely and relative to men. And some are starting to wonder whether we're making a mistake in putting measures of political progress above personal fulfilment.
Should we refocus feminist goals on developing and enhancing female values rather than mistakenly focussing on delivering male equivalence? Might the very notion of equality itself be a misleading goal when instead we should be looking to enhance and deepen the experience of being female? Or, should falling levels of happiness in fact be seen as positive indications of women's raised expectations as well as their willingness to speak out about dissatisfaction?
For the last decade, in both the US and the UK, nearly three quarters of those aged 18-35 listed climate change as the most important issue, followed by racial and then gender equality. While predominantly voting on the left, young adults have largely ignored Marx's notion that the economy defines all other social relations. Many argue this is a grave error; cut out of the housing market and lacking the same opportunities, the young find themselves, for the first time, economically worse off than previous generations.
Should the economy and the distribution of wealth be front and centre of our concerns? Have young adults been led astray by social media, and are they disadvantaged as a result? Or have the young correctly identified a new form of radical politics that will in due course replace the old politics of the past?
In association with The New Humanist.
Since Thatcher and Reagan there has been widespread political agreement on the need for a low tax environment to encourage growth, which through 'trickle down’ would benefit everyone. Yet many argue this has been a grave error. Disparities in wealth have grown, the top 1% have taken a greater and greater proportion of GDP over the last 40 years in both the US and UK. While at the same time growth has slowed.
Should we simply reverse the strategy and hike taxes for the top 10%? Should we go further and look to a radical redistribution of property and end inheritance? Or is this just envy which if implemented would make us all a great deal poorer?
From Alexander Pope's exclamation “Oh happiness! Our being’s end and aim!” to the smiling faces on our billboards and magazines; for centuries, the West has believed that striving for happiness is a noble ambition. Yet many argue this approach is mistaken. The proportion of those who claim that they are 'unhappy' in the West has risen by 50% since the 1950s. And recent studies show that despite New Zealand's introduction of a world happiness index in 2014, they still have one of the highest rates of depression and suicide in the developed world today.
Is our search for happiness not only a grave mistake but the source of much of life's negativity? Should we abandon our current attachment to achieving happiness and instead seek purpose in the achievement of some higher personal and collective goal? Or in an age of declining religious belief, is the pursuit of happiness the only meaningful goal we have left?
We are more open about sex than ever before. No topic it seems is too outrageous to discuss. No concern too personal to share. We have dedicated sex therapists, coaches and a hoard of columnists exploring every conceivable topic. But are we making a mistake? Surveys show that there has been nearly a 50% decrease in having regular sex amongst young people. And across all adults in many countries there has been a marked decrease in the frequency that we have sex with a partner. Could it be that our very openness about sex makes it less exciting, less transgressive, and less desirable?
Have we got the statistics wrong, are we now just more able to admit we are having less sex than we consider the norm? Is the decline in sex even a good thing, the consequence of there being less unwanted sex? Or, is the unknown and the forbidden somehow essential to all forms of desire if it is to maintained, and do we need to be less explicit about sex, to reintroduce magic and mystery? From the art market to fashion we desire the scarce and bored with the commonplace, do we just need to face up to the fact that the same is true for sex?
In association with The Independent.
From the birth of reason to Descartes' "I think, therefore I am"; Western culture has placed thought at the centre of what it is to be human. In our everyday lives, the same is true. We spend much of our time planning the future, reflecting on the past, puzzling about what to do, and talking about it with others. But might this be a mistake? "To think too much is a disease" argued Dostoyevsky. While existentialists made the case that thought obscures the essence of what it is to be a human being.
Should culture, as Nietzsche proposes, 'free itself from the seduction of words and thought'? Should we focus on experience, action and being, turn off our screens, explore the world and live a bit more? Or is this romantic nonsense, and thought not only makes us unique but allows us to make sense of the world and alone offers the means to overcome the profound challenges we face?
Adam Smith is widely seen as the founder of modern economics with its reliance on free trade. And the call to trade with everyone, even ones enemies, was one of the driving forces of Britain's nineteenth century economic dominance. But now European dependence on Russian oil, along with China's growth in economic and political power, appears to many as if free trade was a grave error.
Should we recognise that free trade breeds rich and powerful enemies, and deal only with those who share our values? Or should we continue to use trade not only to strengthen our own economies but to keep our enemies close and help smooth over global conflict? At root do we need to rewrite our core economic beliefs or can free trade be rescued?
From work to entertainment, communication to travel, technology has shaped every aspect of our lives. Unsurprisingly, we think technological progress relentless and inevitable. But Aldous Huxley argued "technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards". The arms industry and climate change would certainly seem to support his case. While advances in phones, computers and the internet have coincided with increases in depression and mental ill health, and do not appear to have led to the rise in productivity heralded.
Do we need greater control of technology to ensure better outcomes? Should we give up the idea that technology is the way to make our lives better altogether and focus instead on relationships, community and purpose? Or is technology the only credible reason for believing the future can be better than the past?
Psychedelics are back in the cultural zeitgeist, this time as a mental health treatment. But many argue psychedelics only work by replacing mental illness with a distorted view of reality. Michael Pollan commented "psychedelic therapy might simply be imposing a comforting delusion on the sick". But is this a mistake? A study from Imperial College London suggests people get better at predicting future life events following psychedelics and visual acuity is known to increase - suggesting people become less delusional, not more.
Should we see the psychedelic experience as showing us something true about the nature of reality? Do hallucinations give insights into metaphysical and spiritual truths, or might they encourage pluralism? Will psychedelics usher in a new era of mental well-being or will they put thousands of patients into a delusional state of mind?
From Isaac Newton's alchemy to Walt Disney's cryogenics, Genghis Khan's elixir of life to Jeff Bezos' rejuvination lab, human history is littered with quests for immortality. And now, the anti-aging market is estimated to be worth a staggering $60 billion. But while we continue to strive for longevity, studies show that the people who live longest die the least content.
Should we give up attempts to live forever as a fool's fantasy that will never be delivered and which would in any case be undesirable? Without death would we undermine creativity and paradoxically lose the will to live? Or are claims of the possibility of overcoming aging not only credible but a central hope for all currently alive and the future of humanity?
"The truth is rarely pure and never simple", said Oscar Wilde, but in today's world many are looking for assurance that they are being told the truth. From Facebook and Twitter, to the BBC, New York Times and a host of companies offering fact checking services, there is no shortage of organisations claiming to determine the 'facts'. But, is this a credible goal? Western governments point to Russian and Chinese "fact-checkers" as state propaganda. Yet, they do the same to us. The American government sought to bring in a Disinformation Board. Within weeks it had to be abandoned due to public and partisan outrage.
Should we recognise that all organisations, and individuals, embed a perspective in their claims and their assessment of the facts? Is fact checking a marketing exercise to appear trustworthy while in reality demonstrating the opposite? Or in an internet age where fantastical claims are presented as truths, is it essential that we seek to call these out?
We live in a culture seemingly obsessed with celebrity. But whereas fame used to be a secondary product of success in a given field, now it is a goal in its own right and the key to wider success. Artists as a result focus their attention on their social media persona and fame, rather than rely on their craft. Not surprising that the current generation pursues individual fame, with 86% of young people aspiring to be influencers, with figures such as Kylie Jenner holding 228 Million Instagram followers.
Is our focus on celebrity and fame destroying culture? Should we reclaim the value of the work over the individual, the ads and the social media followings? And is fame worth having in any case, and would we be better abandoning it as a goal? Or should we see fame as a talent in itself and recognise the skill and savviness of 21st Century influencers?
We tend to think data is impartial. As a result, there was a time when many thought technology and AI could deliver a world free from human faults and failing. But from misogynistic chatbots, to biased hiring algorithms - we now know tech data mimics human prejudice with potentially serious consequences. One algorithm used in US court systems predicted black defendants much more likely to repeat offenses than they actually were.
Do we need to give up the idea that data can ever be impartial, and was Thomas Kuhn right when he said 'the answers you get depends on the questions you ask'? Should we train our technology on "perfect" synthetic data in order to create the society we want? Or is impartial data essential to our culture and society and something we must strive at all costs to deliver?
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