In the run up to HowThelightGetsIn festival – the world’s largest philosophy and music festival - in London’s Hampstead Heath September 23 – 24, we asked some of our regular hosts and speakers what they thought the most important debates were for this century. Anders Sandberg, Joanna Kavena, Hilary Lawson, Philip Collins, Bjørn Ekeberg, Barry Smith, Peter Tachel and Myriam François respond.
The most important debate to have in the 21st century is how to coordinate about rapid solutions to emergent global problems. We saw it partially happen during Covid-19, but other crises are plausible - systemic risks, runaway AI and biotech, new forms of crime, etc. We need mechanisms that can quickly mobilize the right parts of humanity, whether states, companies, NGOs or individuals, to make use of the tools we have to fix things, and reward them for doing so.
Anders Sandberg is Senior Research Fellow, Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford, Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Martin School and Ethics and Value Fellow, Reuben College. He will be taking part in the debate on A Radical Step to Gender Equality, alongside radical author Mary Harrington and post-socialist studies Kristen Ghodsee.
Can algorithmic systems ever capture human complexity? Nearly a century ago, Godel registered the incompleteness of even the most beautiful mathematical systems, let alone venerable and mutable words. Yet, today 'automagical' AI (Google's term) presupposes a direct link between formal language systems and the world, including our inner lives. But can consciousness and complex experience be modelled syntactically with total accuracy? If not, what happens to elements that can't be fathomed within algorithmic systems? Are they dismissed as unreal, superfluous? (like being trapped in a novel by Philip K Dick...) Also: who is in charge of the formal settings of this online (and, increasingly, offline) reality - and what do they want?
Joanna Kavenna is a writer and winner of the Orange First Novel prize. Her works include A Field Guide to Reality, The Ice Museum and Inglorious. Her journalism has appeared in the London Review of Books, The Guardian, and the New York Times. She will be taking part in the debate on Creativity and Freedom, alongside prominent barrister and political activist, Jolyon Maugham, and journalist and filmmaker Myriam François.
Desperate tinkering, or paradigm shift? A debate in cosmology that has long been marginalized is finally orbiting closer to the centre of public discourse. New data from the James Webb Space Telescope reinforce growing discrepancies between our measurements of the universe and the predictions of the standard theoretical model. Some established parts of the theory, such as dark matter, have been challenged by dissidents in the field, but now, observations such as galaxies billions of light years older than the hypothesized Big Bang, or highly divergent measurements of the so-called Hubble constant, point to more fundamental problems.
Against the operative tendency in science to keep readjusting the model within the existing framework, is science able to reinvent its understanding of the universe to make better sense of what we see? Or is science stuck fitting data to the same model we have used for more than half a century even if it does not appear to work? Or is the cosmos simply too mysterious for science to be able to find a single coherent explanation?
Bjørn Ekeberg is a philosopher of science, author of Metaphysical Experiments Physics and the Invention of the Universe. He will be taking part in a debate on Particle Physics and Fairy Tales, alongside science communicator Sabine Hossenfelder, theoretical physicist Gavin Salam.
The primary challenge is to move on from realism and provide an account of how to make sense of the world without the notion that our language and theories describe reality. Any such account will need to address the self-evident challenges of a post-truth world. How can we account for our ability to intervene in the world with precision, and refine our theories without requiring a differentiated reality that underlies those theories? How can we assess and chose between radical opposing perspectives without being able to appeal to objective truth? Central will be the need in addition to show that the account itself is not self-referentially incoherent. Armed with such an account we might then be in a better position not only to make sense of ourselves and the world but to overcome the divisive culture into which we are increasingly falling.
Hilary Lawson is a post-postmodern philosopher, and a renowned critic of philosophical realism, best known for his theory of Closure. He will be taking part in a debate on Fragments and Reality, alongside renowned philosopher Michael Della Rocca, philosopher of physics Tim Maudlin, and continental philosopher Kathleen Higgins.
Imagine a moment marked by fears that the public interest was prey to the distortion of foreign ideologues, that an egregious press was both partisan and too influential. Such a moment would demand an impartial institution. That was, indeed, precisely the context, as Lord Reith described it, at the point of the establishing of the BBC.
A century on we live in a time it which it is often alleged that truth has flown. How can impartiality mean anything in a world of proliferating and fragmenting media? Perhaps there isn’t, and never has been, any Archimedean point of impartiality. Deciding which stories to cover and how to cover them cannot be entirely neutral between all interests.
But that is hardly a reason for giving up. It is precisely because the alternative to impartiality is a real of competing Trump cards that we need to defend the idea. The alternative to impartiality is not just a necessary partiality; it is propaganda.
Philip Collins is former chief speechwriter to Prime Minister Tony Blair, a columnist for the Evening Standard and writer in chief, The Draft. He will be taking place in the debate The Impartiality Illusion alongside outspoken politics professor, Matthew Goodwin, and media and cultural historian, Sophie Scott-Brown.
Concerns with truth in history and science are fundamental to philosophy. But the wider application of truth to works of fiction or scientific models have come to the fore lately and preoccupied writers, historians and scientists. Debates at past HowTheLightGetsIn festivals explored the idea of truth-telling in historical fiction and idealised scientific models. But now, when AI can fill in the historical record or construct its own models should we consider departures from the facts quite so innocent? Does it make a difference that it is not human intelligence that is generating or controlling these highly plausible narratives? Advances in AI, through the arrival of Large Language Models are spawning new philosophical questions that we need to attend to urgently.
Barry Smith is a professor of philosophy and the Director of the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. He will be taking part in the debate The Shadow of Spirituality alongside award-winning psychologist John Vervaeke, founder of The Skeptics Society Michael Shermer, and philosopher Sophie-Grace Chappell.
The most important debate is the need to tame corporate and billionaire greed to ensure a decent standard of living for every person on Earth - to provide them with housing, education, healthcare & public services. There is enough wealth in the world to do this. But it’s mostly sequestered by the mega rich in tax havens and tax avoidance schemes. It cannot be right that the 26 richest people on the planet have as much wealth as the poorest 50% (4,000 million people), with 900 million hungry & over two billion without basics like clean water and sanitation. In Britain, 171 billionaires have total assets of £684 billion. A 1% annual wealth tax on them would raise £6.84 billion every year to fund the NHS and social care. Billionaire wealth is growing at 5-10% a year, so they would not actually lose a penny. It’s time to tax the super rich!
Peter Tatchell is a prominent activist, author and co-founder of the queer human rights group OutRage! and campaigns for human rights in Britain as well as internationally. He will be taking part in the debate Naming and Shaming alongside author Joanna Kavenna, cultural sociologist Sophie Scott-Brown.
The most important debate is over the guiding values of our societies - capitalism cannot be allowed to rule our morals to the detriment of humans and the wider natural world - we need to find ways to rein in capitalism back to an economic force and away from a guiding organising principle for your societies. People - the planet - before profit is the essential and urgent issue of our time.
Myriam François is an author, broadcaster and academic. She will be taking place in the debate Rationality in the Dock, alongside psychologist Carol Gilligan, leading sceptic Michael Shermer and outspoken philosopher of language Kathleen Stock.