One for the watchers of the blog and for anyone interested in philosophy, theology, economics or sociology – that is, subjects that would still be excorbiantly costly to study under Nigel Farage’s vision of a tuition-free STEM subject Britain.
On Sunday 18th April 2015, BBC One will broadcast an edition of The Big Questions, a flagship daytime discussion programme, which I was privileged to take part in as an audience member. The single question posed for the programme was “Do we have free will?” Though not one of the main panelists whose name and profession gets listed in a purple banner at the bottom of the screen, I was thrilled to be seated right behind the author and campaigner Owen Jones. Whatever you make of his debut polemic Chavs and his latest book The Establishment, let alone his firebrand populist leftism, Jones is a prolific figure in contemporary political commentary and someone who I have no doubt will rack up many footnotes in the history of the 2010s. Getting to make his personal acquaintance was a great honour if only to meet a person who serves as a rare case of sincerity and commitment to principles that do not step into fanaticism.
The episode was recorded at the Manor C of E school in Nether Poppleton, York, the previous Sunday (11th April). The discussion was preceeded by an unrecorded warm-up wherein Owen Jones and his sparring partner Deidre Bounds, an entrepeneur, produced some high-quality informal debate. It was unfortunate that this dummy question concerning inequality and the economy was mainly for the calibration of cameras and getting the audience in the right mindset. The debate which followed saw less talk about business and taxation and more on matters theological.
Expecting the quesiton to receive answers from the religious and naturalistic sperspectives followed by migrations into economics, class and social relations and eventually into neuroscience. This outline, intentionally or not, corresponded with great chronos to the history of philosophy – from Aristotelianism and religious debate through the Enlightenment and social theorists of the Industrial Revolution through to modern theories of society and the demystifying process of science.
However, the Age of Reason came quite late in the discussion; the Dickensian arguments about the condition of the poor and the best way to resolve social distress barely got a word in and we were fortunate that the word ‘neuroscience’ received mention at all. The programme was, true to its Sunday brief, a meaty religious argument through and through. Livening up proceedings were the presences of a Calvinist civil servant, Mike Petit at one end of the set contrasted with Catholic Voices member and commentator Peter D. Williams. Arguments about pre-destination and the proper place of reason were the dominant markers of discourse for much of the programme. What made things all the more fascinating as an historian was the consideration that had this discussion occurred some three to four hundred years previously, the use of pikes and pyres to settle points of clash would have been a plausible outcome.
I was very lucky to get a point in when the cameras were turned to the audience. At one point I even heard Nicky Campbell say that I had “got the ball rolling!” with what I hoped was my best line on the coherence or otherwise of theological conceptions of free will. This comes in about halfway through the debate but only when the programme is broadcast will I be able to leave an exact time-stamp.
The episode will be available on BBC iPlayer tomorrow after broadcast if you wish to catch up. Watch out for an enthralling debate between some great minds in the front row and some not-too-shabby ones in the rears!