Explore unmapped topics on the frontiers of thought with debates that push the limit of what you know.
"Europe's answer to TED" - TotalPolitics
Explore unmapped topics on the frontiers of thought with debates that push the limit of what you know.
"Europe's answer to TED" - TotalPolitics
From Heraclitus to Plato, humans have always argued about whether the world is fundamentally in flux or static. The success of science has hinged on the search for universal laws, assuming, with Plato, that the fabric of nature remains constant. Yet as we learn more about the universe, investigating ancient quasar light and the X-ray properties of distant galaxies, we are finding new evidence to suggest our laws are not in fact constant across space and time.
Do we need a different scientific framework to understand a universe in flux? Or are laws still the best way of organising our information, even if technically incorrect? Or will we discover that any apparent fluctuations in the fabric of the universe is actually determined by a deeper, underlying law we have yet to formulate?
The tech giants once heralded the internet as ushering in a new era of democracy, empowerment and human potential. Now it seems it is Big Tech itself that is taking over. So powerful they have influence over much of our lives and some argue beyond the reach of governments. Meanwhile, the internet has become a vehicle for tribal opposition that can be manipulated by vested interests, malevolent states and corporations.
Was the promise of a democratic flowering of creative potential always illusory - a marketing device for those in control of the technology? Was it inevitable that powerful organisations would seek to influence opinion and thereby control the space? Or can we find a way to rejuvenate the lost, creative, promise of the internet?
Silkie Carlo, Thangam Debbonaire, Anders Sandberg and Stuart Semple debate. Luke Robert Mason hosts.
Backed by its military and economic power, for centuries Western culture has been a model of progress for the rest of the world. But the West is in crisis. As liberalism falls into self-contradiction, as both populism and elitism undermine democracy, and as the West loses its economic advantage, where will the world look to shape its future?
Will China’s development model replace the consensus around free market economics? Could Russia’s rejection of decadent liberalism produce an alternative type of politics? Or could liberal democracy survive the eclipse of the West?
In a Covid world we have been focussed on safety. Yet almost all of us choose to engage in activities, from swimming in the sea to driving a car or having a bottle of wine, that carry risks. In fact, more died globally last year from alcohol than Covid. So how do we assess what risks to take and how much time and resource to protect ourselves from future risk?
While it looks as if vaccines will bring the Covid pandemic under control, the next pandemic is potentially just a virus away. Must we act urgently now to safeguard the world from a further catastrophe? Or should we assess against other global risks and the cost and resource involved? Is our ultimate goal to eradicate risk or must we accept risk is unavoidable?
Some argue behaviour is a product of our genes. Others that upbringing and environment play a primary part. Yet we have no control over either our DNA or our upbringing. So do we carry no responsibility for our actions? Courts have on occasion made judgments in this light. In 2006 Bradley Waldroup admitting to killing his wife's friend. He was acquitted because he was found to have an unusual variant of a 'warrior gene' and to have been abused as a child.
Should we abandon moral responsibility to build a fairer world? Or is the notion that our actions are determined a dangerous mistake?
Until recently the possibility that we are living in a computer simulation was largely limited to fans of The Matrix with an over active imagination or sci-fi fantasists. But now some are arguing that strange quirks of our universe, like the indeterminateness of quantum theory and the black hole information paradox are evidence that our reality is in actuality a created simulation. Moreover, tech guru Elon Musk has come out supporting the theory, arguing that "we are most likely in a simulation".
Should we take the idea that we are living in a computer simulation seriously? Or is it a sign of the extent that we can be taken by films and fiction in the same way that UFO sightings coincide with TV and movies? Or is the puzzle a contemporary reformulation of the philosophical question made famous by Descartes, of how we can know that reality is not a dream?
From Greece’s Gaia to Inca’s Pachamama, from the Norse Jörð to the Hindu Prithvi, humans have long seen the Earth as a divine being. But Christianity and modern Western culture took god out of nature. The planet has been recast as a resource, to be conquered, settled and tamed. Now, however, the tides are changing again. Nature for many is once again the new god. Rivers and rainforests are being given legal rights and some philosophers go further arguing that the planets of the solar system should also be seen to have rights independent of any human engagement with them.
Might re-embracing Mother Earth be just what we need to prevent environmental catastrophe and self-annihilation? Or is the return to the gods of nature a dangerous step that undermines human goals and values and threatens a return to superstition and fate?
In many cultures and in many times, women would not have sex with a man unless they were married to them. The world we live in now is, for the great majority, a massively difference space but we still assume that sex and relationships go together. Yet from hook up culture to studies that demonstrate sex declines in long term relationships there are increasing signs that we should not take the link for granted.
Might we be headed towards a culture where relationships and sex are pursed independently? Is talk of separating sex and relationships dangerous, providing a threat not only to the stability of our personal lives but to the very structure of society? Or could it be a new and profound liberation that will create better and more stable relationship choices and more satisfying lives?
From Rembrandt to Rothko, Mozart to Wagner, art and music have the capacity to give us a feeling of the sublime and transcendent wonder. Yet in contemporary culture the sublime is not only rare, it is for the most part not even desired. Few would claim that listening to Justin Bieber or watching the WAP video are forms of wondrous beauty.
Do we need a radically new culture that isn’t obsessed with 'the real' or 'the ugly truth'? Or should we leave the sublime and transcendent in the dustbin of history? And what exactly is it that sets apart Wagner and WAP? Or, is WAP sublime?
The pandemic forced governments from both sides of the political divide to support a bigger state and massive spending to sustain livelihoods and companies. Despite this political convergence divisions in society are deep and profound with many feeling disenfranchised by a political system that seemingly offers no radical change.
Is this convergence a short-term blip and soon parties on the left and right will form new agendas and give voice to dissent? Or Is the current convergence not temporary but an inevitable result of democracy, as the need to win majorities forces both sides into the centre? Or are we seeing the transition to a new form of politics altogether in which traditional notions of left and right are abandoned?
Peter Lilley, Peter Mandelson, Paul Mason and Ella Whelan debate. Rana Mitter hosts.
Education broadens the mind. Or so the story went. But the university seems to have lurched from one narrow definition of 'right' to another. First it was claimed that a white male hegemony immune to critique dominated the curriculum, now others argue this has been replaced by a woke mainstream of acceptable ideas that peers, lecturers or guests challenge at risk of losing their career. Debate they argue is out of the question.
Is it possible to have a pluralistic space in which no one view is dominant and no group silences their opponents? Or should we accept that university is a rite of passage that instils the current conventional and dominant view? Is debate and freedom to express any opinion an essential part of a vibrant culture or an illusory ideal that is really a vehicle for privilege and prejudice?
In less than a lifetime, the first half of the twentieth century brought a series of life changing inventions: electricity, phones, cars, planes, radio, TV, the first computers. In combination with the all-encompassing new stories of physics, science, once a branch of philosophy, became the philosophical belief of our time. Some, like Hawking and deGrasse Tyson, claimed philosophy was over.
Yet in the last half century, technology though has become more contentious. While grand theory has seemingly stalled, as cosmology and the Standard Model get more puzzling and less clear cut. Might philosophy once again find itself centre stage at a time when knowledge and progress are in question? Or is science still the only credible way to improve our circumstances and make sense of the world?
Rationality, once revered, has had a bad press. Increasingly derided as the rhetorical bluster of the educated elite, typically powerful and male. And seen as the prejudiced claim of those who are sure they are right. Yet in its absence public debate becomes ever more rancorous and tribal.
Do we need less emotion, more calm, and more rational conversation and debate? Should we see rationality as a method for positive change and a mechanism for good decision making? Or is rationality a rhetorical delusion, a means of dressing up privilege and power, which should be seen for what it is, a defence of the vested interests it seeks to hide?
The idea of the brain as a computer is everywhere. So much so we have forgotten it is a model and not the reality. It’s a metaphor that has lead some to believe that in the future they'll be uploaded to the digital ether and thereby achieve immortality. It’s also a metaphor that garners billions of dollars in research funding every year. Yet researchers argue that when we dig down into our grey matter our biology is anything but algorithmic. And increasingly, critics contend that the model of the brain as computer is sending scientists (and their resources) nowhere fast.
Is our attraction to the idea of the brain as computer an accident of current human techology? Can we find a better metaphor that might lead to a new paradigm? Is there something about computers that has indeed identified the very same processes that are operating in our brains, or is it a profound mistake to imagine the organic can be reduced to technology?
The twentieth century began with a revolutionary new approach to philosophy. The great arguments about the nature of reality and human experience were deemed empty and meaningless. A new philosophical broom, in the form of analytic philosophy, claimed to sweep away vacuous grand theories and replace them with hard logic and analysis and a close attention to the meaning of the words and terms we use. Yet a hundred years on metaphysics is back. Theories of consciousness and the character of reality are once again the topic of debate.
Should we welcome this return to stories about the ultimate character of the world? Or do they risk being empty, conveying little other than the prejudices and desires of their authors? Are grand metaphysical theories about the nature of reality and the self, valuable topics of debate or are they a set of fairytales?
It is forty years since postmodernism swept through the academy changing the character of the arts and social sciences, impacting everything from literary criticism to anthropology, art history to sociology. Soon after it invaded culture generally as technical terms such as 'deconstruction' became mainstream. Yet now its critics, including members of the British Cabinet, argue it ushered in an era of tribal conflict, woke culture, and populist deception and is at the source of a pernicious decline in reason and objective truth.
Should we seek to reverse the changes that postmodernism brought about and overturn its attack on the intellectual tradition of the West? Or was postmodernism a progressive force whose insights were largely correct? Or do we need a new radical approach altogether?
Even if we don’t always admit it, most of us need other people. Lockdown made clear that the ability to hug friends, see loved ones and socialise is central to mental wellbeing. Depressive symptoms tripled in young people during lockdown. Yet mental illness is typically treated as a medical rather than a social issue. Antidepressant use in the US increased 400% between 1988 and 2008, and in 2017, 1 in 6 adults in England were receiving a prescription.
Have we made a mistake in focussing on medication and therapy when the real issues are social? Should we instead target social change to reduce loneliness and isolation and encourage richer and more meaningful contact? Or would this be a disturbing attempt to engineer our personal lives and instead welcome the treatment of mental illness as an overdue recognition of a widespread human condition?
In public and personal life according to 'girl code' no woman can be wrong and women must support other women to prove their feminist credentials. But while some celebrate any woman in power, whether Jacinda Adern and Angela Merkel, or Amy Coney Barratt, Sarah Palin and Priti Patel, others argue that, like men, women must be judged on how they use their position. The gap between the girl bosses and the activists is widening.
Should women support other women independently of their qualities and their approach? Or should we call out the differences between exploiting the patriarchy and overthrowing it in order to achieve lasting progress? Is feminism about being on the side of women whoever they are and whatever they stand for, or has individualism taken over the movement?
With high rates of infanticide, senicide and disease, not many of us pine for the days before farms and nations. Yet anthropologists Yuval Harari and Jared Diamond have called the agricultural revolution a “trap” and humanity’s “worst mistake” respectively, arguing hunter gatherer life was more leisurely and free, as humans were not tied down to private property or oppressed by hierarchy.
Should humans rewild, to escape the oppression of agricultural civilisation? Is there a way to keep the benefits of industry and technology while also living as freely as our untamed ancestors? Or is this an impossible fantasy born out of a misunderstanding of anthropology and the idealistic myth of the ‘noble savage’?
Back in the early 2000s, Silicon Valley promoted Big Data as the means to revolutionise not only marketing and business, but the scientific method itself. Theories were no longer necessary or desirable, instead big data would drive change and understanding. Physics and biology were to be transformed. Yet the claimed scientific breakthroughs do not appear to have materialised. And instead of being neutral and value free many argue big data embeds the prejudices of those writing the code.
Should we reject the claims for Big Data as marketing hype for Big Tech that obscured a darker reality? Should we conclude theories are not only necessary but unavoidable? Or might developments in computing power enable machines to identify patterns that are more powerful than any theories humans can dream up and bring us a better picture of reality?
From the Booker Prize to the evening news, we seem to think that only depressing subjects have serious worth. The pandemic brought with it myriad stories of human suffering, whether from illness, isolation or joblessness, which we readily consumed. But the healthiness of this fascination with misery is questionable, leaving us with a distorted picture of the human condition and low expectations for our own joy and happiness.
Is this focus on negative human experiences universal, a hangover from our evolutionary past, originally meant to be a survival technique? Or is this a symptom of a culture in decline, an expression of the fear that our days of glory are behind us, and it’s all downhill from here? If so, is it possible to snap out of this cultural self-pity, and start celebrating stories of success and victory again?
Since the 1970s we have understood the world through the lens of the Standard Model and its account of the forces and particles that make up the universe. It was a remarkable success, correctly predicting the discovery of quarks, the W and Z force particles and most recently the Higgs boson. But trouble is brewing. A series of deep puzzles have emerged. The theory cannot explain gravity, dark energy or dark matter. Supersymmetry has not been found and a theory of everything to simplify the Model's random complexity has not been forthcoming. Progress in physics seems to have stalled.
Can the Standard Model be modified and improved to answer the puzzles that currently beset it? Or is the model fatally flawed - and time for the next great paradigm shift in science to a radically different account of the universe?
The Bounce, The Crunch, Heat Death. No, not a new range of cereal or set of video games. These are the current scientific theories about how the universe is to end. But there is strangely little consensus, and the end begins to look as deeply mysterious as the beginning.
Should we conclude that there is no end to the universe and that once in existence it cannot be extinguished? Or is time part of the universe and talk of beginning and ends to the universe a mistake? Then again, is our difficulty in being able to frame an answer to these questions a sign of the limitation of human understanding itself?
There's a drug we use to celebrate, commiserate, use to flirt with new friends and reconnect with old ones. It's central to our culture and our way of life. And it's called alcohol. But the line between enjoyment and dependence is slim. During lockdown, alcohol-related deaths have been at their highest rate since records began. Globally more people died from alcohol last year than from Covid-19. And it's the leading cause of death in men up to the age of 60.
Do we do not act to contain this killer because of its centrality to our culture and the vested interests involved? Or is it simply that we enjoy it and turn a blind eye to its consequences? Prohibition was a failure, but could we explore alternatives, and normalise safer social drugs such as psychedelics? Or should we break down the social taboos and anxieties that lead people to intoxicants in the first place?
China has increased investment in Africa from 100 million to over 3 billion in the last decade. Some call this a partnership, some see exploitation and control through debt. At the same time critics argue that old powers continue to extract precious resources, through ownership of mines and agriculture, gaining the value and benefit from the continent's wealth.
With the world’s largest free trade area created in Africa in 2018, is Pan-Africanism the way to shake off these relationships? Will the African Union’s 50-year plan for an integrated continent - its Vision 2063 - come to fruition and if achieved would the continent benefit? At root is foreign investment a necessary and valuable part of economic growth or is it a Trojan horse that cedes power and wealth to others?
Humans have always sought meaning beyond themselves in stories about the transcendental, gods and the “beyond”. However, for many contemporary culture and thought has left them alone with only human, and contradictory, perspectives on the universe. Critics of our current culture argue that in the absence of something beyond ourselves we have also lost meaning and purpose.
Do we need the transcendental to give our lives meaning? Can we conjure a 21st century form of the transcendental that is not religious in the sense of mystery surrounding our unresolved questions about life, and the universe? Or should we embrace the loss of the transcendental, and focus our attention on creating our own, human meanings that have lasting value and importance?
Memes are everywhere. But the term was coined only a few decades ago by Richard Dawkins to describe ideas and cultural behaviour that can be copied and passed on from one individual to another. He took the radical line that memes are a stage in evolution, and that in the same way that humans are a carrier for their genes, we have now moved to a stage where humans are a carrier for their memes. We don't so much choose our memes as they choose us.
Is meme theory an exciting new framework that identifies the importance of concepts and culture? Or is the very idea of a meme a misguided and reductionist account of what it is to be human? And if we adopt the meme theory as correct, is Dawkins' own theory itself a meme and its success independent of its truth?
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