For this year’s World Philosophy Day we asked some leading philosophers “What is the biggest philosophical question for the 21st century?”.
Noam Chomsky, Naomi Oreskes, Tommy Curry, Raymond Geuss, Lori Gruen, Hilary Lawson, Julian Savulescu, John Tasioulas, Raymond Tallis, Carissa Véliz, Bernardo Kastrup, Sophie Grace Chappell, and Joanna Kavenna give answers that touch on the urgent questions to do with the survival of humanity and the planet, as well as philosophy’s eternal questions on the nature of reality.
Can humans overcome the enormous gap between their moral-technological capacity to destroy and their moral capacity to control this impulse?
The question was posed, starkly, 77 years ago, when the atomic age began, and it was clear that technology would soon advance to the stage when Oppenheim’s invocation of the phrase “the destroyer of worlds” would be all too appropriate. Unknown then, the world was also entering a new geological epoch where humans could destroy the environment that sustains life. Both threats have sharply increased since, rendering the question to a level never before contemplated.
Noam Chomsky is a philosopher, linguist, political activist, and social critic. He is Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and laureate professor at the University of Arizona.
Will we successfully address the climate crisis or not?
The fate of billions of people on Earth, as well as nearly all non-human species, depends on the answer. Right now, the biggest obstacle to action is not lack of scientific knowledge. Nor is it lack of adequate and affordable technology. We have known for decades that damaging, man-made climate change was underway, and we now have the technologies we need to go the lion’s share of the way towards eliminating carbon pollution from most energy use.
The problem is political. It is the political power of the “carbon combustion complex”—the fossil fuel industry and the industries that rely on cheap fossil fuels. For decades, these organizations and their political allies have fomented disinformation about the climate crisis and worked to block meaningful action. And they haven’t stopped.
The problem is also economic: a system in which the price we pay for things doesn’t reflect the true costs. We don’t need more science to solve the climate crisis; we need the courage to stand up to the people and institutions who stand in the way of a solution, and the imagination to develop and implement new forms of economic accounting.
Naomi Oreskes is Henry Charles Lea Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. Her books include Merchants of Doubt and Why Trust Science?
How does dehumanization continue to grow upon democratic soils?
Throughout the world, philosophers bear witness to the use of lethal violence, demonization, and the elimination of civil rights against vulnerable racial and ethnic minority groups within Western countries once thought to be exemplars of democracy and individual freedom. Far too often, philosophy conceptualizes the position of the unfreed as those trapped within a state of ignorance rather than those whose lives are unable to make impressions upon the moral consciousness of Western citizens or societies.
Racism and xenophobia run rampant throughout North America, Great Britain, and Europe. Right-wing governments have increasingly embraced rhetoric describing non-white racial and ethnic groups as social problems, a growing pestilence threatening the majoritarian rule of whites. The humanity of those who trespass against the ethno-nationalist tide of empire are killed or incarcerated to make society safe for those who natural birthright finds home upon the shores of empire. How does dehumanization continue to grow upon democratic soils? Poverty, pandemics, and police violence are committed to the death of the most vulnerable, yet philosophy rarely demonstrates any conviction against the rising tide of authoritarianism and death that marks the first decades of the 21st century.
Tommy J. Curry is an American scholar, author and professor of philosophy, holding a Personal Chair in Africana philosophy and Black male studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of The Man-Not: Race, Class, Gender and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood.
The only question is whether any of the destruction we have already inflicted on our world is reversible, and if so how this can be done.
John Dewey was right to reject the traditional view that humans are ‘essentially’ thinking beings and to emphasise that we are in the first instance living animals. To live, however, is to be active, to interact with nature and with one’s social environment; only then does thought become possible. We live in an economic formation that ruthlessly channels our life-activity into ever more frenetic participation in a self-reinforcing cycle of increasing extraction of resources, for the production and consumption of objects. The operation of this cycle has poisoned the environment on which we depend and is undermining the basic conditions of continued human life. The only question is whether any of the destruction we have already inflicted on our world is reversible, and if so how this can be done. Exiting the cycle has proven impossible, partly because we have not seriously thought about it, but also (and, I think, chiefly) because some individuals and groups have strong vested interests in the continuance of the existing economic system. If we are already doomed, it does not matter much what we think about, but if we do still have time, reflection on these issues should have priority.
Raymond Geuss is Emeritus professor at the faculty of philosophy, University of Cambridge and author of Not Thinking Like a Liberal.
Is it possible for us to get our collective acts together to allow us, other animals, and the planet to survive?”
When I’m feeling pessimistic, which is much of the time, I think the answer is no. But I occasionally imagine it may be possible for us to think beyond tribalism, violence, self-importance, and greed and work together to change course before the crises bearing down on us reach their devastating ends. Looking to those who resist the poisoning of the planet, to youth climate strikers, to anti-racist activists and Indigenous land protectors, to defenders of animals and marginalized others, to those offering mutual aid and political care to people who are food and housing insecure, to abolitionists working to end mass incarceration, to those developing a solidarity economy and combatting capitalist devastation all provide inspiration. We need to fundamentally change who we are and how we think of our relationships to one another and the more than human world. Can we achieve such a radical transformation? I’m not sure.
Lori Gruen is William Griffin Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University. She is the author of Ethics and Animals: An Introduction, Entangled Empathy, and co-author of Animal Crisis (Polity, 2022).
The primary philosophical challenge is not different for the 21st century than it has always been, namely to provide a credible overall account of the world and ourselves.
Perhaps we might once have been tempted to say a consistent and complete account of the world and ourselves, instead I prefer the adjective 'credible' to indicate an account that will hold in many circumstances and prove valuable in making sense of where we are and enabling us to intervene effectively but not setting the bar so high that it cannot be reached.
The most central question within this overall remit, that we face in the light of the legacy of the twentieth century, is to frame an account of the world that enables us to escape the self-referential destruction of postmodernism and relativism while recognizing the radically perspectival character of what we might traditionally have called knowledge.
As for the biggest non-philosophical question for the 21st century, it is surely how to avoid Armageddon when an increasing number of nations have the potential to initiate catastrophe at the same time that global politics has become precariously unstable.
Hilary Lawson is a non-realist philosopher best known for this theory of Closure, a wide-ranging account of thought and language and their relation to reality. He is Editorial Director of the IAI.
What would constitute human moral bioenhancement?
Many people believe that the greatest threats this century are nuclear war, biological war, terrorism or accident, climate change, rogue AI, or runaway nanotechnology. But these are symptoms of the underlying disease: human moral failings. These are the expressions of choice resulting from the limitations and perversions of human moral behaviour. For the first time in human history, our fate is almost entirely in our hands. But our ethics has hardly progressed since the Greeks and our biology and psychology is the same as our hunter-gatherer ancestors: we are nepotistic, tribalist free riders prone to violence and fanaticism who hold a causal sense of responsibility, shunning the disastrous effects of our omissions. Science has magnificently progressed but to an extent that it could wipe out humanity. We can create new life forms, human-animal chimaeras, genetically modified human beings, animals with human brains and perhaps even conscious superintelligent AI. But we lack the ethics and capacities to wield these enormous powers, as contemporary events starkly show. We identify moral progress and we must make humans capable of making moral progress. One challenge is philosophical: what is an ethic fit for the 21st century? The other challenge is scientific: how can humans achieve that?
Julian Savulescu is Chen Su Lan Centennial Professor in Medical Ethics, and Director of Biomedical Ethics at the National University of Singapore.
The biggest question for the 21st century remains Socrates’ question – ‘How should one live?’.
Unfortunately, or not, however, we cannot simply avail ourselves of an off-the-shelf Socratic answer. Even if we should live in a way that fully expresses our nature as rational animals, exercising our capacities for reasoned self-direction both as individuals and as members of self-governing communities, there is the formidable task of understanding what this actually means, and how it can be secured, in the circumstances we inhabit. These circumstances include: the rise of authoritarianisms that reject the very idea of inalienable rights possessed in virtue of our nature as human beings, as opposed to rights bestowed upon us by all-seeing governments on the basis of ‘social credit’ accrued; the erosion of civility and respect for truth in the public discourse of nominally democratic societies; the development and deployment of social media and other digital technologies that aim to reduce us to passive consumers trapped in virtual worlds that are palmed off as improvements on the human condition; and the existential threats posed by climate change and nuclear weapons. The academic discipline of philosophy, small and vulnerable as it is, is only one voice in addressing Socrates’ question. But the flip side of this is that his question is everyone’s question. For my own part, I believe an adequate answer to Socrates’ question today will require imagining more radically participatory forms of democracy, both in politics and the wider culture, that are attuned to the challenges and opportunities of the digital age.
John Tasioulas is professor of ethics and legal philosophy at the University of Oxford, and director of The Institute for Ethics in AI. He is the editor of The Cambridge Companion to The Philosophy of Law.
How do we design and implement digital technologies in a way that they enhance wellbeing and protect human rights and the environment?
I’m not sure there is ever a biggest question. Life is so complex that to be attuned to it one needs to be asking many important questions. One such question, very much particular to the 21st century, is: How do we design and implement digital technologies in a way that they enhance wellbeing and protect human rights and the environment? Technologies have the power to improve and worsen our lives. Often they do both; plastics and nuclear technology are good examples. One of the tasks of our generation is to make sure that the good outweighs the bad when it comes to tech. If we don’t build good governance to accompany AI, we might end up worse off than if the technology had never been developed in the first place. The decisions we make today will shape our societies for decades to come. We would do well in putting more thought into the tech we build so that it can be supportive of wellbeing, fairness, and democracy, among other values.
Carissa Véliz is Associate Professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, and author of Privacy is Power.
How will philosophy influence the Big Conversation and motivate those who are not crushed by the search for subsistence, safety, freedom, and fulfilment, to address the needs of others who are?
It’s not possible to rank the urgent questions that face humanity in the 21st century: poverty, inequality, injustice, persecution, war, and climate change all rightly have a claim on our attention. They are, of course, connected. Natural disasters apart, the primary source of the horrors inflicted on many human lives is the greed – for consumables and power – of their fellow humans.
Philosophy at its best, when scrupulousness does not tip it over into pedantic journeys along paths paved by footnotes, is motivated by astonishment and gratitude, and its gaze uncovers the hidden depths in the seeming shallows of daily life. Inviting us to ‘untake’ the taken for granted, it expresses a questioning spirituality and sense of mystery equidistant from religious dogmas justifying the persecution and coercive control of others, and a scientism that empties humanity’s self-image.
The biggest challenge to philosophy is therefore a meta-philosophical question: How will it influence the Big Conversation and motivate those who are not crushed by the search for subsistence, safety, freedom, and fulfilment, to address the needs of others who are? In short whether speculative seriousness can promote practical seriousness.
Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet and novelist, ‘one of the world’s greatest living polymaths’ (Intelligent Life), and author of Freedom: An Impossible Reality.
What is time? Neither philosophers nor physicists have clear answers.
One would expect someone with my background to say that the nature of phenomenal consciousness is the biggest question of the 21st century. And it surely is. But I don't think it is an unanswered question: the case for the primacy of phenomenal consciousness as an ontic category, and for the reducibility of everything else in nature, including individual minds, to a foundational field of phenomenality, is overwhelming. So the challenge for the remainder of the 21st century is one of accepting the answer already provided by reason and evidence, and of getting used to a way of regarding nature different from the one we’ve inherited from the 19th century.
As for the key unanswered question, I’d go with time: just what is time? Neither philosophers nor physicists have clear answers. The question is discombobulating because time is both obviously there (after all, yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not yet here) and obviously not there (for there’s only ever the present: our memories and expectations are always, and only, experienced now). Understanding time—I suspect—will be the key to understanding individual identity; to understanding how seemingly individual minds arise from a common, underlying field of subjectivity in nature.
Bernardo Kastrup is the executive director of Essentia Foundation. His work has been leading the modern renaissance of metaphysical idealism. He is the author of Why Materialism is Baloney.
Sophie Grace Chappell
Is there going to be a 22nd century?
We humans are in immediate danger of destroying both ourselves and our planet. There is no Planet B. And if there was, would humanity even deserve to live there, given what we’ve done to Planet A?
We must change course urgently. We must end our war on nature. We must stop oil. We must protect and promote biodiversity (except for coronaviruses). We must transition from a plunder-and-exploit culture to a respect-and-coexist culture. Our instincts for conflict, competition, and exploitation put us in mortal danger. We as a species can no longer afford luxuries like the competitive rat race, the myth of economic “growth”, the West’s head-in-the-sand attitude to the linked crises of climate change and population displacement, and, above all, war.
Western philosophy has been key to legitimating and ideologizing plunder-and-exploit culture. Since at least Descartes’ time, the idea has been that value exists in its own right only in tiny pockets demarcated by something like sentience. The rest of the world is then seen as an inert evaluative void, ready and waiting to be pillaged by the bearers of sentience. A more truthful understanding of Planet Earth will see value everywhere. This is the vision of reality as pervasively valuable that I will happily spend the rest of my life arguing for.
Sophie Grace Chappell is professor of philosophy at the Open University. She is the author of Epiphanies: An Ethics of Experience and the UK's first openly transgender academic philosopher.
What is this reality we have been born into, without our prior consent? Who are we, who is anyone?
I think the major philosophical questions remain the same. These are ancient philosophical questions but they have ongoing political import as well eg - who are those who seek power and dominion in our world? Why are they so certain, even tyrannical, when we scarcely know ourselves? Philosophical debates about language remain fundamental as well. As Borges said: do we really think the beautiful mutterings of primates can entirely capture the complexity of the universe, for all time and all ages? Ethical questions around AI, technology, democracy, mass surveillance and global justice are of course vitally important and they link back to the question with which we began about the nature of reality. Who decides what reality is, and in whose interest?
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.