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The Dance of Life (Video)

The APA blog is very pleased to announce a partnership with the Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI).  IAI was founded in 2008 by philosopher and award-winning broadcaster, Hilary Lawson. It aims to invigorate our lives and culture by placing big ideas and critical thinking at the heart of public life. Through the digital platform IAI TV and a programme of events including debates, retreats, and the world’s largest philosophy and music festival HowTheLightGetsIn, the IAI generates and incubates original and challenging ideas and conveys these to the national and international public.

Ideas are alive and evolving. At the edge there is rarely consensus. That’s why ideas matter – because they are in dispute. When they turn into knowledge and are recycled in textbooks they are already dead. And that’s why debates, rather than lectures, are at the centre of the IAI’s program.

In this New Philosopher-sponsored debate, the first post in an ongoing series of IAI videos on the APA blog, we see formulator of the hard problem of consciousness (and APA member) David Chalmers, Oxford philosopher Peter Hacker, and New York neuroscientist Susana Martinez-Conde debate the mystery of experience. Our life is made up of experiences, but what experience actually is remains a mystery. Heidegger thought it inexplicable and neuroscientists cannot find its location. Do we just need a better theory to uncover its secrets? Or is experience somehow both all that we have and yet not part of this world?

This video was produced by The Institute of Art and Ideas in association with New Philosopher and is republished here with permission.  It was filmed at HowTheLightGetsIn 2016 alongside 200 other debates and talks, all available for free at IAI TV. Their new podcast, Philosophy for our times, is available here.

One thought on “The Dance of Life (Video)

  1. Very stimulating video!
    But, if I may be so bold, I would like to make a suggestion. I think philosophers need to make a major move that will cut through a lot of Gordian knots here. The thing that seems to get left out of almost all discussions of consciousness or experience, discussions that are still cast in terms of the “physical” world, explaining things in terms of “mechanisms”—a remnant of our old fixation on billiard-ball mechanics—is the phenomenon of LIFE. We experience things because we are ALIVE—the state of being alive is the interface between a perceiving subject and its perceived environment, including that which we perceive when we focus attention “at” our own bodies and at disembodied brains. Life is the link between the “subjective” and the “objective” that Professor Chalmers is searching for. Professor Hacker is wrong, however, or at least much too narrow, in his definition of “experience” as “the doings and undergoings of human beings.” As the recent blog post on philosophy and ethology illustrates, we are just now starting to recognize the myriad other ways there are of experiencing the world that are had by other forms of life, other living beings–not only the other primates, as de Waal most often writes about, but other mammals, birds, fishes, invertebrates and even trees and other plants–just check out the growing list of books popularizing the science of the “subjective” side of these other beings. If we can get over our culture’s deep-seated anthropocentrism and appreciate that all living organisms must experience their life-worlds in some way, in order to respond appropriately and thereby survive–if we can place our human forms of experiencing on a continuum with those of other lifeforms–I suspect many seemingly paradoxical dualisms will collapse. (Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life is a good start in this direction.)

    But I will go farther, because I think this move is crucial to restoring philosophy’s respected place in the intellectual life of humanity, something that many have remarked is in considerable doubt today. Humanity needs a way of framing its place in the world—its place in what was being called “the material world” here, presumably that which we mean by the term “reality”—something that must include our collectively maintained social world, as well as our individual experienced worlds, as part, but only part, of what exists. Philosophy could “do its job” by helping to supply this framing, by integrating what we have learned from the sciences and other disciplines into a much more coherent understanding of “how things are” than the average person, or even the average academic, currently takes for granted. I disagree with Professor Hacker’s claim that philosophy’s job is merely one of “conceptual clarification”–what if many of our culture’s “concepts”–such as the concept of “consciousness” or “experience” as something possessed exclusively by human beings–are themselves now hopelessly out of date? So what if we can construct “arguments” that proceed by flawless logic, but start from false premises and lead to badly mistaken conclusions, such as that we humans are absolutely different from, and detachable from all relationship with, other Life?
    After decades of internecine conflicts that have served to deconstruct just about everything of value that philosophy could offer to a rudderless “postmodern” humanity, I think philosophy ought to take metaphysics seriously again, and recognize the phenomenon of LIFE at the center of our metaphysics. (And people DO need a metaphysics of some sort in order to get around in the world, no matter how much academicians may try to deny it—so it might as well be a good one!) We still don’t know what Life “is,” any more than we know what consciousness “is”—science is making great strides articulating their “objective” ontologies, but Life is the foundation of everything that we are, something that we know from the inside. It is more fundamental than even the “thinking” of Descartes; as Antonio Damasio put it, “first there was being, and only then was there thinking.” Life is not something that needs to be “explained” in terms of something else, because it is our starting point; it is from a position of being alive that we seek explanations, just as from it we experience positive and negative affects, sensations, emotions and so on, from it we strive to stay alive and grow and interact.
    Moreover, humanity’s situation on the Earth cries out for such a Life-centered metaphysics/ontology. Many philosophers studiously ignore the empirical reality of seven-billion-plus people trying desperately to maintain themselves on a finite planet, now with the knowledge that the ways we power our “economies” are pushing Earth Systems toward a much less hospitable state for our form of life and for many others with which we evolved. We have to learn to respect, and protect, the biosphere. It is LIFE itself with which we must identify, not human civilization as it is presently constructed–many of its institutional structures need to change to get us through the needed transition. Philosophy should lead the way.

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