Fri 19th May – Nationhood and National Feeling – Paul Archer

The new breed of nationalists like Marie Le Pen argue that the really important axis in modern politics is no longer between left and right but between the patriots  / nationalists and the globalists / internationalists.   I think we need to learn to navigate this difficult and uncomfortable territory because it is much too dangerous to leave it in the hands of politicians like Le Pen and Trump.  In this spirit, I want to think about the good arguments on both sides and ask what counts as good and bad nationhood.

Fri 28th April – Dennett’s ‘From Bacteria to Bach and Back’ – John Little

How did we come to have minds?

For centuries, this question has intrigued psychologists, physicists, poets, and philosophers, who have wondered how the human mind developed its unrivalled ability to create, imagine, and explain. Disciples of Darwin have long aspired to explain how consciousness, language, and culture could have appeared through natural selection, blazing promising trails that tend, however, to end in confusion and controversy. Even though our understanding of the inner workings of proteins, neurons, and DNA is deeper than ever before, the matter of how our minds came to be has largely remained a mystery.

That is now changing, says Daniel Dennett. In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, his most comprehensive exploration of evolutionary thinking yet, he builds on ideas from computer science and biology to show how a comprehending mind could in fact have arisen from a mindless process of natural selection.

Fri April 7th – Re-Imagining the Supernatural – Chris Eddy

The word “supernatural” means above nature, and the supernatural has traditionally been imagined as a higher reality, typically a Divine Creator, existing before the Creation, from whom all that we think of as “natural” has descended; but the natural sciences have gradually drained this image of all credibility. Consequently, if we wanted to find a way for scientifically educated people to talk meaningfully about the supernatural, we should need to re-imagine it, and one way of doing this might be to think of the supernatural not in the traditional image of a pre-existing First Cause that created the physical universe, but rather as a Final Effect that appeared only after the Big Bang, after the emergence of life on Earth and after even the evolution of our own species. We could think of it as a reality that has risen above(or “transcended”) the processes of nature.

I shall argue that there are well-attested examples of entirely rational and consciously principled human action which can’t be explained in terms of any kind of natural motive and which must therefore be regarded as miraculous, i.e., supernaturally motivated.

Fri March 31st – Prison – what is it good for? – Paul Archer

As of Friday last week, there were 86,515 people in prison in England and Wales which is around 3 in 2000 of the total population.  I want to review the best research about this prison population including the nature of offences and sentences, the explanation for the extraordinary rise in the prison population over the past decades, the personal characteristics of prisoners (including their mental health), the conditions in prisons, and how we compare with other nations.  I then want to reflect upon the purposes of prison and ask what is prison good for.

Fri March 24th – History as the Art of Making the Past Coherent – Larry Chase

The philosopher-historian R G Collingwood wrote of history as “a negotiation between past and present” and during the talk I want to play around with this epigram. Throughout the nineteen-fifties and sixties, philosophers repeatedly questioned if historians could be objective and accurate given that they are tainted by having to address the past through modern eyes. It’s a fair, relevant concern but not mine for my interest is in the reverse. Travelling around the UK, almost every town identifies itself as “historic”: the churches, dockyards, pubs (etc) carry the same sign and too often this means no more than something is very old and thereby gives it a kind of kudos whereas educators and the government mean something more substantial. Saying that the battlefield at Hastings is historic implies relevance or resonance in the here and now and I want to look at the hold that, in this culture, the facts and fictions of the past has on understanding  the present.

Fri Mar 17th – From Neural Is to Moral Ought – Neil Howard

Neil says:

The talk takes its inspiration from Joshua Greene’s ‘From neural ‘is’ to moral ‘ought’: what are the moral implications of neuroscientific moral psychology?’

Greene continues: “Many moral philosophers regard scientific research as irrelevant to their work because science deals with what is the case, whereas ethics deals with what ought to be.”

But Greene (director of Harvard’s ‘Moral Cognition Lab’) goes on:

“I maintain that neuroscience can have profound ethical implications by providing us with information that will prompt us to re-evaluate our moral values and our conceptions of morality.”

What are those profound implications?  In this talk I explore various ideas to try to present a neuroscientific perspective on morality.

Fri March 10th – Violence at the Dawn of Agriculture – Ned Peglar

Violence and warfare can be viewed in two ways. To ‘hawks’ violence and warfare are natural: they give an evolutionary advantage and are seen clearly in our closest ape cousins, but are now controlled by the state and law. ‘Doves’, however, suggest that violence and warfare have increased with the accumulation of property, debt, status and nationality. Hawks consider levels of violence to have gradually decreased through time whereas doves consider levels to have increased.

Archaeological evidence appears to suggest great variations in levels of violence through prehistory. This evidence is often adopted selectively by hawks and by doves, and is sometimes interpreted as the result of population dynamics or environmental factors.

In this talk I will discuss the adoption of agriculture to see what the evidence reveals about its effects on violence and warfare. Is violence a natural state for humans so the start of farming had no effect? Or did early agriculture lead to conflicts over land? Or perhaps increases in food supplies reduced population pressure and decreased levels of warfare?  I want to use the archaeological evidence to make a tentative case that violent conflict doesn’t always happen and when it does, it may be as a result of resource security rather than scarcity.