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The Great Debate at Newcastle Science Festival

Engaging in Great Debates
by Caspar Hewett
8th March 2004
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I am quite excited by next week - The Great Debate is putting on its most ambitious programme of events to date as part of Newcastle Science Festival 2004. The Great Debate is a Newcastle-based group who organise courses, discussions and conferences on a range of topics focused on science and reason. Our aim is to facilitate lively, open debate on scientific and social issues. The name The Great Debate began in 1998 when I devised a ten week course entitled The Great Debate - Evolution and Human Nature. I had been organising small informal meetings on science-related topics for a few months and decided that it would be good to develop discussion-based courses for adults on some of the themes we had discussed. Over the next couple of years I co-wrote and taught courses on topics such as the debates within modern evolutionary theory, environmental thought and sustainability.

In June 2000 I organised what was to be the first of a series of public discussions with a panel of speakers entitled Determined to Survive? The Great Debate - Freedom, Determinism and the Gene. With the support of Newcastle University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning and the newly formed Institute of Ideas I had the privilege of bringing together an excellent panel of nationally known speakers for a challenging evening of discussion - beginning a tradition which continues to today.

The Great Debate today consists of a handful of dedicated volunteers who spend their valuable time reading and discussing current ideas and organising events to bring these ideas to the general public. We treat our audience as intelligent and open to ideas and, by creating space for public debate, we hope to encourage discussion, critical thinking and a willingness to challenge current orthodoxies . . . which bring me back to the Science Festival. Two of the forthcoming events; a dayschool and a public discussion on my pet topic of human nature provide a perfect illustration of what The Great Debate is all about.

The day school, The Great Debate: Of Blank Slates and Zombies being held on Saturday 13th March, is taught by the double act of philosopher David Large and me. Taking on modern theories of human nature we will use two books to provide contrasting perspectives on this huge subject; Man, Beast and Zombie by Kenan Malik and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker. The idea of the course is to tackle some fundamental questions of what we are and what we should or can aspire to; Is there a universal human nature? If so, what defines it? Is it consciousness? Is it our capacity for rational thought? Is it our ability to adapt our environment rather than adapt to it?

I am firmly in the humanist camp myself and it is precisely this sort of question that lies behind my long-standing interest in evolution. In fact it was the debates within contemporary evolutionary theory that provided the topic for the first course I put on under The Great Debate banner. Humanism for me expresses the idea that human beings have exceptional status in the natural order - primarily because of our ability to reason. It represents a certain optimism about our capacities and expresses a belief in human improvement and social progress. This view influenced our choice of Man, Beast and Zombie as a principal text for the dayschool. Malik makes the case that what is exceptional about human beings is that we are both objects of nature and subjects capable of making our own destiny. From the Enlightenment onwards the idea of the subject has had a central place in thought about the special nature of humanity. This is a description of human beings as active agents doing things for reasons and shaping the world to their own ends. Yet, in recent years, fields as diverse as neuroscience, literary criticism and Evolutionary Psychology have reached conclusions which seem to contradict this vision. This is particularly striking in the work of writers such as Rita Carter, author of Consciousness and Mapping the Mind who argues that consciousness and free will are mere illusions.

Rita is one of the panel coming to Newcastle for the public discussion being held on Thursday 18th March entitled Whatever Happened to the Subject? In our tradition of bringing together eminent thinkers we have invited James Heartfield, author of The 'Death of the Subject' Explained and Raymond Tallis, author of the recent The Hand: A Philosophical Enquiry into Human Being to examine differing views of human nature and to discuss the absence of the human subject from many modern theories of human nature. This should be a really exciting as all three speakers have unique insights on this fascinating area and will be discussing profound questions about choice, intentionality, our ability to influence the direction of change, and whether the death of intention in modern theory reflects a new understanding of what we really are or whether these interpretations have more to do with the way we view ourselves today.

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© C J M Hewett, 2003