Battle of Ideas 2014
Shaping the Future Through Debate
and Why Philosophy matters more than ever
The Battle of Ideas festival was set up 10 years ago, by the Institute of Ideas and a range of partners, to encourage free thinking and open public discussion. While the connotation of ‘free’ thinking has changed to ‘serious’ thinking about global issues, the Battle draws hundreds of students and people from diverse backgrounds, and more than 350 speakers from the UK and internationally. One of the main themes of this year’s festival battled with our avoidance to make judgments and express honest opinions. Claire Fox, director of Institute of Ideas, was predictably direct – assertively and wittily challenged both the audience and the panel, and handled the stand like a true judge. The programme offered an endless list of discussions, from technological innovations, democracy, business, architecture and philosophy. And while it did surprise us with its breadth, a missing element was a discussion on finance and economics. Maybe breadth compromised depth in certain areas, though definitely portrayed a vast array of ideas that you cannot pack anywhere else but the Barbican.
Opening with the topic of judgment on a Saturday morning and concluding with a defence of philosophy on Sunday night, this weekend engaged us more than would the inspirational TED talks. It offered the space and time for philosophical thinking and sought deeper truths beyond clichés. Reflecting across this vibrant weekend, philosophy permeated most discussions – from architecture to politics.
“The meaning of life is to seek and define meaning” (quote from debate “What is good architecture?”)
With the explosion of knowledge and data, we might think that better answers about humanity could be answered by science rather than philosophy. Is philosophy really dead or is it still relevant for our 21st century society? Special guest Rebecca Goldstein was joined by Professor Tim Crane (University of Cambridge) and sociologist Frank Furedi (University of Kent), as the panel tried to defend the question of philosophy and place it against scientific evidence.
Tim Crane defends philosophy as an aspect of civilisation:
“Philosophy won’t go away because we inevitably philosophise about our existence.”
In his fascinating book “The Grand design,” Steven Hawking argues “philosophy is dead.” While Hawking claims that the world came to existence because of the laws of nature, he doesn’t define what these laws of nature are, Tim Crane argues. Thus, this makes space for philosophical inquiry beyond the entropic answer that Hawking gives. He further argues that philosophy is a matter of disciplining your thinking – as precise as the subject matter would allow. Philosophy should be free – it is not an ideology nor does it have an aim.
Frank Furedi challenges the preoccupation of knowing ‘what’ to understanding the meaning ‘why’ He humorously points out the proliferation of hollow business mission statements, such as “we stand behind our values!” – but what are they? He challenges value statements and the status of knowledge in the business world by pointing out the preoccupation with superficial answers and “facts” rather than the search for meaning and reason. In this world, the meaning and morality are avoided, and moral arguments are dismissed as naïve. Existential problems are explained statistically and reduced to scientific language. It is difficult to think of any kind of human experience that doesn’t come with a health warning or some kind of medical explanation.
“Science gives us facts but doesn’t tell us the meaning of those facts…”
Rebecca Goldstein argues that “philosophy maximises coherence” We are living in a time that requires a lot of philosophical inquiry to assess the implications of scientific advances. Philosophy is about the method and the questions. It probes implications and reconciles present day science with other intuitions. She gives an example of time – as understood scientifically and experienced intuitively. “In quitting this strange world he has once again preceded me by just a little. That doesn’t mean anything. For us convinced physicist the distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, albeit a persistent one,” she quotes Einstein from his condolence letter to the widow of Michele Besso. Einstein has always had an inclination for philosophy and has been able to paint a more holistic picture of time, which a physicist couldn’t have. The final comments from the panel really resonated with me, as they emphasised the importance of the liberal arts – as a platform for connecting science and the arts in a holistic system and learning process. The Liberal arts is a more mature system, which connects and doesn’t polarise, and creates the curiosity that is needed in the 21st century student.
“Philosophising is what it is to be human.”
*If you haven’t had a chance to see Rebecca Goldstein at the Battle of Ideas, you can get a second chance at the RSA Lecture – on Why Philosophy won’t go away on 23rd Oct at 13:00.