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?
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?
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?
‘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?
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?
Adam Smith is widely seen as the founder of modern economics with the advocacy of free trade. And the call to trade with everyone, even one’s 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 growing in economic and political power it now looks to many as if free trade was a grave error.
Should we recognise that free trade breeds rich and powerful enemies, and trade 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 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?
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?
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?
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, education is almost exclusively about thought and we spend most 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 Heidegger and the existentialists claimed thought obscures Being.
Should culture, as Nietzsche proposes, 'free itself from the seduction of words and thought'. Should we focus on experience 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 is essential to our being able to make sense of the world and the means to overcome the profound challenges that we face?
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?
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?
From the way we work, travel, communicate and entertain ourselves, technology has shaped almost every aspect of our lives. Unsurprisingly, we largely assume technological progress to be relentless and inevitable. But might this be a mistake? "Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards", argued Aldous Huxley. The arms industry would certainly be a case in point. But the key advances in technology today linked to phones, computers and the internet have coincided with increases in depression and mental ill health, and have not led to the rise in productivity that was heralded.
Do we need to impose greater checks and regulation on technological change to encourage better outcomes? Or should we give up the idea that technology is the way to make our lives better altogether and focus instead on other factors such as relationships, community and purpose? Or is technology the only credible reason for hoping that the future will be better than the past?
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?
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