A History of Ideas
Neuropsychologist Paul Broks on Wittgenstein
August 6th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Paul Broks looks at the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the problem of "other minds". How do I know you are not a zombie who behaves like a human but actually has no consciousness? Even if you are conscious, how can I tell that what I experience as red, you do not experience as blue? I know what's going on in my own mind, but I can never have direct access to what's going on in yours. Such questions have troubled philosophers for centuries, but Wittgenstein thought that most of these tough problems were caused by nothing more than a "bewitchment by language". He didn't claim to be able to solve them; rather, he invented a method which he thought of as a kind of philosophical therapy that would cause the problems to melt away. The aim, he said, was to "show the way out of the fly bottle". In the case of the "other minds" problem, he imagined trying to invent a "private language" to describe one's own private mental states, and then showed (he thought) that such an idea was incoherent. Is the fly out of the fly bottle? Paul Broks suspects not, and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey argues that philosophy took a disastrous turn in the 20th century when it started focusing on language. Humphrey argues that the privacy of our individual minds is a stark and unpalatable fact about human existence which has driven much of our culture. Presenter: Paul Broks Producer: Jolyon Jenkins.
Philosopher Clare Carlisle on Reality and Perception
August 5th, 2015, 06:00 PM
If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? That's the kind of head-scratching question that's popularly believed to occupy the time and brains of philosophers. It relates to the ideas of immaterialism proposed by Bishop George Berkeley who asserted that the only things that exist are minds and ideas in those minds. He said that matter didn't really exist and that, in any case, it was unnecessary to complicate things with such a concept. For Berkeley, "to be perceived is to be". But what happens to "things" when they are not being perceived? Did Bishop Berkeley really believe that his bed disappeared when he gets up in the morning and left the room? The answer is no, because there is the over-arching mind of God and God is always perceiving all things even when we are not. When Berkeley leaves the room God is still perceiving the bed so it doesn't pop out of existence. To try and get to grips with this Clare Carlisle talks to Dr John Callanan, a lecturer in philosophy from Kings College London and hears a neat limerick on the subject by Robert Knox. She also talks to the filmmaker Carol Morley whose documentary, Dreams of a Life, explored the story of a 38 year old woman, Joyce Vincent, whose body was found in her flat amongst half wrapped Christmas presents, the tv switched on. She had been dead for 3 years and nobody had noticed she wasn't there. The reader is Peter Marinker. Producer: Natalie Steed.
Physicist Tara Shears on Falsification
August 4th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Science is based on fact, right? Cold, unchanging, unarguable facts. Perhaps not, says physicist Tara Shears. Tara is more inclined to follow the principles of the Anglo-Austrian philosopher, Karl Popper. He believed that human knowledge progresses through 'falsification'. A theory or idea shouldn't be described as scientific unless it could, in principle, be proven false. Raised in a Vienna in thrall to Marxism and Freudianism, Popper bristled against these 'sciences' which could adapt and survive to prevailing political and social conditions. They could not be proven false and so they were not science. The ideas of Einstein, by contrast, could be tested scientifically and might one day be proven false. An interesting principle certainly, but potentially demoralising for a scientist who could see her life's work dissolve in front of her eyes. Tara joins her colleagues at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva to ponder the implications of Popper's work. She also meets Popper's former student, John Worrall and string theoretician David Tong. This is part of a week of programmes asking how we can know anything at all.
Lawyer Harry Potter on Eyewitness Testimony
August 3rd, 2015, 06:00 PM
Barrister Harry Potter asks whether we can believe the evidence of our own eyes. It's a vital question for the justice system today and Harry traces it back to the work of 18th century Philosopher David Hume. Hume, a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, wrote about miracles, arguing they were most likely the product of wishful thinking and faulty perception. His arguments are still important for barristers, judges and juries still reliant on eye witness testimony to decide guilt or innocence. To find out how our eyes deceive us, Harry meets professor Amina Menon, expert in eye witness evidence at Royal Holloway, University of London. And Harry visits professor of philosophy Peter Millican at Oxford University to ask whether Hume's methods can help us overcome our inbuilt biases. Producer: Melvin Rickarby.
How Can I Know Anything at All?
August 2nd, 2015, 06:00 PM
A history of ideas. Presented by Melvyn Bragg but told in many voices. Each week Melvyn is joined by four guests with different backgrounds to discuss a really big question. This week he's asking 'How can I know anything at all?' Helping him answer it are physicist Tara Shears, lawyer Harry Potter, philosopher Clare Carlisle and neuropsychologist Paul Broks. For the rest of the week Tara, Harry, Clare and Paul will take us further into the history of this idea with programmes of their own. Between them they will examine: David Hume's debunking of miracles; Wittgenstein's attempt to prove that other people have minds; Karl Popper's idea of falsification, which underpins the scientific method; and George Berkeley's approach to a famous philosophical problem - If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Producer: Melvin Rickarby.
Writer Lisa Appignanesi on the Love of Children
July 30th, 2015, 06:00 PM
How should we love our children? Can we build on the feelings we experience when we see them for the first time, raise them by instinct and personal principles or should we consult the childcare gurus of the internet and the bookshelves? Lisa Appignanesi, the novelist, biographer and author of 'All About Love' suggests that we should turn to the first childcare expert of them all, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The father of the Romantic movement was one of the first philosophers to consider the importance of the initial bond between mother and child, strongly opposing the fashionable habit of farming newborn babies out to wet nurses. Rousseau failed to follow his own advice, abandoning his five children to the Paris orphanage, but his writing belatedly raised our children to a status worthy of philosophical debate. Lisa is joined in her ruminations by psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, Rousseau expert Christopher Brooke and her own son and grandson. This is part of a week of progammes asking, 'What is love?'.
Psychotherapist Mark Vernon on Freud
July 29th, 2015, 06:00 PM
What is love? Psychotherapist Mark Vernon looks at Freud's ideas on the Greek god Eros, which he saw as a kind of life force running through us, shaping our desires and passions Freud is often thought of as reducing everything to sex, but in his view, for humans even sex isn't even really about sex. Although he started off thinking that sex was about biological release of pressure - like a steam engine - he quickly realised, from working with patients, that it was more about fantasy and imagination. Humans want far more from sex than just reproduction or physical stimulation. Freud used the Greek god Eros as a metaphor for the unconscious forces that motivate us. He thought of Eros as a something like a force field of love, going beyond the simple one-to-one sexual attraction to a broader desire to get more out of life. Eventually he saw Eros as a desire for unification with the whole of humanity that is built into the dynamic of life itself - the yearning that wants to pass life on in children, the passion for creativity and discovery, Presenter: Mark Vernon Producer: Jolyon Jenkins.
Theologian Giles Fraser on Altruism
July 28th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Giles Fraser discusses gene theory versus altruism with playwright Tom Stoppard whose play The Hard Problem explores the extent to which our genes dictate human acts of love and kindness, and Armand Leroi, the evolutionary biologist who says we are merely programmed to carry out altruistic acts. Producer: Maggie Ayre.
Classicist Edith Hall on Aristophanes in Plato
July 27th, 2015, 06:00 PM
In 416BC the Greek playwright Aristophanes went to a drinking party. The guests included many famous Athenians, including Socrates, and all of them delivered a speech about love. Aristophanes' speech, says presenter Edith Hall, is 'quite simply the most charming account of why humans need a love partner, another half, in world literature.' In the beginning, he says, humans had two bodies - four legs, four arms. These early humans wheeled around the planet doing cartwheels and were blissfully happy. Then they offended the gods who split them in two. This explains why we are always looking for our other half. This speech appears in Plato's Symposium. Edith's programme also features matchmaker Mary Balfour who shares some of her own experience about the search for love; while Edith explains her belief that the absence of love begins with the primal separation of mother and child.
What Is Love?
July 26th, 2015, 06:00 PM
A history of ideas. Presented by Melvyn Bragg but told in many voices. Each week Melvyn is joined by four guests with different backgrounds to discuss a really big question. This week he's asking 'What is Love?'. Helping him answer it are theologian Giles Fraser, writer Lisa Appignanesi, classicist Edith Hall and psychotherapist Mark Vernon. For the rest of the week Giles, Lisa, Edith and Mark will take us further into the history of ideas about love with programmes of their own. Between them they will examine Freud's ideas on erotic love, Jesus and altruism, the first guidance on how to be a loving parent, by Rousseau and Aristophanes' speech which explains how love was born. Producer: Melvin Rickarby.
Philosopher Timothy Secret on Ancestor Worship
July 23rd, 2015, 06:00 PM
If we're to live well together we must first learn to live well with the dead, says Timothy Secret. At traditional Chinese funerals money, and sometimes paper effigies of goods like washing machines and aeroplanes are burned so that the dead might be adequately equipped in the afterlife. To the Western onlooker this can feel strange but Timothy Secret believes we have something to learn. For Confucius, the Chinese teacher and thinker, respect for and obedience to your parents is one of the most important rules to follow in life and Frances Wood, an expert in Chinese history and society explains why this applies even after their death: observing proper mourning rituals and then honouring your ancestors through twice yearly grave tending. Darian Leader, a psychoanalyst, sets out how Western attitudes towards mourning and the dead have become disrupted veering between the two extremes of determined "closure" and "moving on" on the one hand and excessive obsession with the dead on the other. Producer: Natalie Steed.
Philosopher Angie Hobbs on Plato's Philosopher Kings
July 22nd, 2015, 06:00 PM
Professor Angie Hobbs asks if the key to harmonious living could be found in Plato's Republic where he proposes that the ideal state be run by philosophers and not by those who seek power for their own ends. Producer: Maggie Ayre.
Economist Kate Barker on the Free Market
July 21st, 2015, 06:00 PM
Is a Free Market the vital foundation of a fair, dynamic and creative society? The father of economics, Adam Smith certainly thought so. Since the publication of 'The Wealth of Nations' in 1776 Smith's thoughts on trade and money-making have come to be seen as the theoretical foundations of a rational and rather uncaring form of pure capitalism. Economist, Dame Kate Barker is keen to put the soul back into Smith, revealing the staunch moral principles that underlined his view of a fair and just capitalist society. She wants to measure today's markets against the standards set by the sage of the Scottish Enlightenment. Would Britain's markets in groceries, homes or financial services bring a smile to Smith's stern visage? Kate is joined in her quest by Smith's latest biographer Jesse Norman, by housing market analyst Yolande Barnes and by Christine Tacon, the government's grocery market regulator. This is part of a week of programmes examining how we should live together.
Historian Justin Champion on Toleration
July 20th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Professor Justin Champion examines Locke's theory of Toleration through the inhabitants of Spitalfields past and present. He goes to Brick Lane whose famous mosque was built as a Huguenot Church and became a synagogue before becoming the centre of Bengali life in London. He meets the Bishop of London, himself of Huguenot descent and local politician Abdal Ullah to discuss religious tolerance then and now Producer: Maggie Ayre.
How Should We Live Together?
July 19th, 2015, 06:00 PM
A history of ideas. Presented by Melvyn Bragg but told in many voices. Each week Melvyn is joined by four guests with different backgrounds to discuss a really big question. This week he's asking 'How should we live together?'. Helping him answer it are economist Kate Barker, historian Justin Champion and the philosophers Timothy Secret and Angie Hobbs. For the rest of the week Kate, Justin, Timothy and Angie will take us further into the history of ideas around this question with programmes of their own. Between them they will examine: Adam Smith's idea of the free market; John Locke's prescription for cohesion in a diverse society - Toleration; ideas of ancestor worship as practiced by followers of Confucius; and Plato's idea of the Philosopher Kings - government by the wise. Producer: Melvin Rickarby.
Philosopher Barry Smith on Descartes and Consciousness
April 16th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Rene Descartes, one of the most influential philosophers ever, thought the mind was like an open book that could be read by the light of reason. So there was nothing that we could not access or examine in our own minds. In fact Descartes argued that consciousness was the mind - there was nothing beyond it. Now we see the mind as a labyrinthine cellar full of bric-a-brac and untapped rooms of which consciousness is merely one - and a small one at that. Barry Smith charts this change and explains some of the contemporary thinking about consciousness.
Philosopher Jules Evans on Jung and the Mind
April 15th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Philosopher Jules Evans explores Jung and the shadow inside all of us. With archive contributions from Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud; plus fantasy writer Juliet McKenna and Mark Vernon, author of Carl Jung: How to Believe.
Writer AL Kennedy on Sartre and the Individual
April 14th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Writer AL Kennedy on Existentialist ideas about the individual. Jean Paul Sartre argued that, for humans, 'existence preceded essence'. This means that there is no blueprint or template from which to work - humans are free to make themselves up as they go along. Being an individual comes from the way you negotiate this freedom and the choices you make in the face of it.
Paul Broks on John Locke and Personal Identity
April 13th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Neuropsychologist Paul Broks asks how we can be sure we're the same person as we were yesterday. The philosopher John Locke thought it depended on what we could remember: if we could remember something happening to us, then we were the same person as the person it happened to. But is that true? What if our memories could be downloaded and then uploaded into another body? Would that new person be the same as us? And if so, how much would we care if the body we now inhabit was destroyed? These sci-fi philosophical thought experiments can make us rethink our concept of personal identity and maybe even our attitudes towards death. In the end, is there really a self at all, or are we just a bundle of mental states and events? Presenter: Paul Broks Producer: Jolyon Jenkins.
What Does It Mean to Be Me?
April 12th, 2015, 06:00 PM
A new history of ideas presented by Melvyn Bragg but told in many voices. Each week Melvyn is joined by four guests with different backgrounds to discuss a really big question. This week he's asking 'What does it mean to be me?' Helping him answer the question are philosopher Barry Smith, neuropsychologist Paul Broks, writer A L Kennedy and philosopher Jules Evans. For the rest of the week Jules, Paul, Alison and Barry take us further into the history of ideas about the self with programmes of their own. Between them they will examine Descartes idea 'I think therefore I am', ask what role memory plays in ideas of the self, discover how stories and myths burrow into our unconscious, and ask whether there's more to existentialism than wearing black and pondering deep thoughts. Producer: Melvin Rickarby.
Historian Alice Taylor on Habeas Corpus
April 9th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Historian Alice Taylor explores the idea of justice through history, through the lens of power. Who holds the power? Who SHOULD hold the power? Who does that power serve? And who should it protect? One way in which the justice system can remove the power of a citizen is by locking them up, but there are strict laws about how and when that can be done. The writ of Habeas Corpus, part of our legal system almost since the time of Magna Carta, is designed to protect subjects from being imprisoned unlawfully. But who this writ really serves is a more complicated question. Alice follows the legal and historical trail to find out who really decides what justice is. Producer: Emily Knight.
Thomas Hobbes and Civil Disobedience
April 8th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Criminologist David Wilson looks at 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes and his "social contract" theory. Hobbes argued that the only way to secure peace was for everyone to give up their personal freedom and agree to be ruled by a "sovereign". Otherwise, he said, life was liable to be "nasty, brutish and short", with everyone at war with everyone else. In fact, none of us has actually signed a contract to give up our freedom, so what if we disagree with what the state wants to do? David looks at the case of the "naked rambler", Stephen Gough, who is currently in Winchester prison because he refuses to wear clothes in public. Gough benefits from the protection of the state, so is he obliged to stick to social norms as his part of the bargain? David also looks at "bitcoins" - the digital currency that operates outside the control of any government. Is bitcoin world a libertarian utopia, or a reminder of what Hobbes was talking about: that without someone to lay down the law, you end up with violence and rampant criminality? Presenter: David Wilson Producer: Jolyon Jenkins.
Philosopher Angie Hobbs on the Veil of Ignorance
April 7th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Angie Hobbs with Leif Wenar and David Runciman debate and explore one of the most searching ideas of twentieth century legal thought: John Rawls' assertion of the value of a veil of ignorance. John Rawls was a prolific American philosopher and one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. His magnum opus, A Theory of Justice defines the principles of Justice as those that "everyone would accept and agree to from a fair position". He proposed that in order to build a truly 'just' system of law, the law-makers should be kept unaware of their eventual position within that system - they should determine what is best for society from a position outside of society. This famous thought experiment is known as the 'veil of ignorance'. Rawls served as a soldier in the Second World War and was promoted to Sergeant. After he refused to discipline a fellow soldier, who he thought had done nothing wrong, he was demoted back to Private. Producer: Tim Dee.
Barrister Harry Potter on Deterrence
April 6th, 2015, 06:00 PM
All this week Melvyn Bragg and guests are discussing ideas of Justice. Today lawyer Harry Potter uses the ideas of the philosopher Kant to ask whether deterrent prison sentences are just. He takes us back to the 1700s, when hundreds of petty offences carried the death penalty. And Gordon Finlayson from the University of Sussex explains how Kant's idea that you should never treat people as a means to an end would put him at odds with our justice system today, where people can receive heavy sentences in order to put others off committing the same crime. To see whether Kant's ideas and our justice system can be reconciled, Harry visits Lord Judge who was Lord Chief Justice at the time of the London riots of 2011, when deterrent sentences were handed down. He explains how sentences are determined. Producer: Melvin Rickarby.
What Is Justice?
April 5th, 2015, 06:00 PM
A new history of ideas presented by Melvyn Bragg but told in many voices. Each week Melvyn is joined by four guests with different backgrounds to discuss a really big question. This week he's asking 'What is Justice'? Helping him answer it are barrister Harry Potter, criminologist David Wilson, philosopher Angie Hobbs and historian Alice Taylor. For the rest of the week Harry, David, Angie and Alice will take us further into the history of ideas about justice with programmes of their own. Between them they will examine civil disobedience, Kant's theory of Justice, Habeas Corpus and philosopher John Rawls' ideas on how to create a just society. Producer: Melvin Rickarby.
Ayn Rand and Selfishness
April 2nd, 2015, 06:00 PM
The Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand believed that behaving rationally meant putting your own interests first: you actually have a moral duty to be selfish. Altruism or self-sacrifice are immoral, she claimed, as is asking for help from others. Clearly this goes against most traditional views of ethics, but Rand's views have become influential, particularly in some corners of American politics. Rand's protege, Nathaniel Branden, developed her ideas to stress the importance of self-esteem - the route to personal fulfilment was feeling good about yourself. Many people, even those who would reject Ayn Rand's core philosophy, have subsequently believed that low self-esteem is at the root of social problems such as crime and educational underachievement, and that we should aim to boost it. But is self-esteem really such a good thing? As Paul Broks discovers, the research suggests that some people have too much self-esteem, not too little. Maybe the route to a good life is not through feeling good about yourself, but being resilient to knocks that fate deals you.
Naomi Appleton on the Buddha's Four Noble Truths
April 1st, 2015, 06:00 PM
Naomi Appleton explores the Buddha's Four Noble Truths in a week of programmes asking how do I live a good life. She speaks to a buddhist nun in Edinburgh who used to be a model, and investigates the link between mindfulness and the Four Noble Truths. With contributions from Ani Rinchen Khandro and Professor Willem Kuyken. Naomi Appleton is the Chancellor's fellow in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. The producer is Miles Warde.
Justin Champion on Max Weber and the Protestant Ethic
March 31st, 2015, 06:00 PM
Hardworking families, alarm clock Britain, shirkers and strivers...there's no doubt that ideas about the moral power and value of hard work are embedded in our culture. But where did these ideas come from? The historian, Justin Champion, explores the ideas of the German thinker and father of sociology Max Weber. In his most famous book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber set out his idea that the roots of our beliefs about the value of hard work and material success are to be found in the religious thinking of Protestantism, the Puritans especially and Calvin in particular. For them finding a vocation, working hard and achieving material success were evidence that they were one of the elect: the people God had saved from eternal damnation. Those religious ideas have resonance today, albeit translated into a secular setting: Justin talks to Steve Finn, a former armed robber now involved in running, Blue Sky, a social enterprise that offers employment to ex-offenders so they can turn their lives around. He also hears from the entrepreneur Sara Murray for whom work and life are happily intermingled and whose sense of mission around the success of her company, Buddi, drives her. Justin also looks at the darker side. With the writer Madeleine Bunting, he explores how our culture's obsession with the "work ethic" can leave people unable to participate feeling deficient and judged. Producer: Natalie Steed.
Philosopher Jules Evans on Aristotle and Flourishing
March 30th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Philosopher Jules Evans wants to prove there's been a revival of Aristotle's ideas about flourishing and how to live a good life. "These ideas, which many of you might think are a bit dusty, they are central to modern politics, so the National Office of Statistics now measures national eudaimonic wellbeing, their flourishing." To prove his point he visits Gus O'Donnell, former head of the civil service, who explains: "If you think of one thing governments could do, it would be to get rid of misery. Making multi-millionaires a little happier, to me that's not one the pressing public policy issues of our age." And James O'Shaughnessy explains why he's helping to set up a chain of schools called Floreat based on Aristotle's flourishing concept. Jules Evans is the author of Philosophy for Life. The producer is Miles Warde.
How Do I Live a Good Life?
March 29th, 2015, 06:00 PM
A new history of ideas presented by Melvyn Bragg but told in many voices. Each week Melvyn is joined by four guests with different backgrounds to discuss a really big question. This week he's asking 'How do I live a good life'? Helping him answer it are historian Justin Champion, neuropsychologist Paul Broks , theologian Naomi Appleton and philosopher Jules Evans. For the rest of the week Jules, Paul, Justin and Naomi will take us further into the history of ideas about the good life with programmes of their own. Between them they will examine Aristotle's idea of flourishing, selfishness, the Protestant work ethic and Buddhism's Four Noble Truths. Producer: Melvin Rickarby.
Archaeologist Matt Pope on tools and human evolution
January 29th, 2015, 06:00 PM
There's a tiny bone needle at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire. For archaeologist Matt Pope it's hugely significant. 13,000 years ago local people used it to construct tailored clothing which allowed them to survive and thrive at the very limits of Ice Age civilisation. Skip forward millennia and the first human visitor to Mars will be protected by a thin skin of man-made fabric, a suit containing the only biological processes for millions of miles. Our ability to create tools that take us into new and hostile environments is, for Matt Pope, the key to man's evolutionary journey. It's a view he shares with the first philosopher of technology, Ernst Kapp. Living through Germany's rapid industrial revolution Kapp came to believe that we could extend all the functions of the human mind and body through technology. Together, man and his tools would know no limits.
Surgeon Gabriel Weston on medical technology
January 28th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Surgeons of the distant past were little more than skilled butchers, trying to minimise the agony of their bone-sawing craft. Surgery itself was a last-resort and one you might not survive, and if you did, one of many brutal contagious diseases might wipe you out instead. But spool forward through history, past the growth in sanitation, inventions of anaesthesia, antibiotics, radiation therapy and the discovery of germ theory, and look at the world of the present-day medic. Safe, effective drug treatments are par for the course, and surgeons, operating in controlled, clinical environments, can count light-rays and robots-assistants alongside scalpels in their quiver of surgical instruments. Clearly medical technology has come a long way. But along with changing how we look, how we think and how we live, have these developments changed who we are as a species? And are we heading in a positive direction? The meteoric rise of elective, 'cosmetic' surgery is testament to the changing expectations we place on our bodies, but the idea of either drugging or cutting ourselves in pursuit of perfection leaves many feeling uneasy. Not everyone feels this way however; 'transhumanists' believe that it's not just possible, but philosophically noble, to try to break through our biological limitations through drugs, genetic modification, or enhancement therapies. They believe the future of our species relies on actively pursuing the dream of 'Superintelligence, Superlongevity and Superhappiness'. But at what cost? Surgeon Gabriel Weston looks at the past, present, and the weird and wonderful future of medicine to find the answer.
Historian Justin Champion on Francis Bacon
January 27th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Historian Justin Champion on Francis Bacon's anxieties about the fallibility of technological innovators. The 17th century polymath Francis Bacon blew a fanfare for the new scientific age: where man would dominate, understand and improve the world and use technology to achieve this. Optimistic about man's ingenuity and the potential perfectibility of human society he saw also that men were weak. Nature might have been laid out by God as a kind of book for man to read but individual humans were as likely to be motivated by greed, folly and pride as good intentions. He explored this idea in his book of 1609, The Wisdom of the Ancients, where he used the example of Daedalus, the most ingenious of inventors from Greek Myth to consider the ambiguities of technical progress. Daedalus inventions were truly marvellous but his pride and lack of forethought led to disaster for all around him, not least his son Icarus who perished testing out one his father's extraordinary inventions.
Writer Tom Chatfield: Has technology rewired our brains?
January 26th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Is technology making us less human? Writer, Tom Chatfield is an enthusiastic downloader of the latest apps, an early adopter of anything small and shiny that promises to smooth his path through life. But Tom can't help feeling a little anxious about the hold that new technology has on his life. Plato felt much the same, concerned that the new- fangled concept of writing might destroy the ability of the Ancient Greeks to memorise vast swathes of human knowledge. Do car sat-navs destroy our innate sense of direction? Do search engines displace our store of general knowledge? With the help of the Economist's Digital Editor, Tom Standage and cybernetics expert, Kevin Warwick, Tom looks toward a future when the communication and computing power of our smartphones is inserted directly into our nervous systems. With superfast thought processes and a battery of new senses will we feel upgraded or out of control, superhuman or inhuman?
How Has Technology Changed Us?
January 25th, 2015, 06:00 PM
A new history of ideas presented by Melvyn Bragg but told in many voices. Melvyn is joined by four guests with different backgrounds to discuss a really big question. This week he's asking how has technology changed us? Helping him answer it are Archaeologist Matt Pope, the Surgeon Gabriel Weston, the technologist Tom Chatfield and the historian Justin Champion. For the rest of the week Matt, Gabriel, Tom and Justin will take us further into the history of ideas about technology with programmes of their own. Between them they will tell us about Plato and the internet, medieval medicine, tool use in human evolution and the origins of Modern Science.
Giles Fraser on Wittgenstein and Blade Runner
January 22nd, 2015, 06:00 PM
Giles Fraser thinks being human isn't a matter of biology or some unique attribute like language. It's not to do with what we are but about how we treat each other. Taking the work of the philosopher Wittgenstein he argues that to be human is to be considered worthy of certain kinds of respect and moral compassion. For Giles, human is a moral category and it is an instruction to treat each other well.
Barry Smith on Noam Chomsky and Human Language
January 21st, 2015, 06:00 PM
Barry Smith argues that language is out most important uniquely human attribute. It doesn't just help us communicate it helps us to think. He makes the case for the distinctiveness of human language against the limited signalling systems of other animals. He looks at Noam Chomsky's idea of a universal grammar - that there is something in the human brain that gives us an innate ability to produce language from very early in our lives. And he talks to experts on other intelligent animals - Prof. Nicola Clayton and Prof. Robin Dunbar - to ask how human language and imagination compares with that of birds and primates.
Catharine Edwards on Seneca and Facing Death
January 20th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Catherine Edwards wants to introduce you to the Roman Philosopher Seneca. But he's dying. Towards the end of his life Seneca became interested in the idea that only human beings had foreknowledge of their own death. Animals didn't know and Gods didn't die. This singular piece of knowledge gives human life its meaning as well as its burden. Seneca argued that to liberate yourself from the fear of death was a vital part of life. But did his own famous death live up to his beliefs?
Simon Schaffer on Humans, Apes and Carl Linnaeus
January 19th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Simon Schaffer is interested in the human species in general and one member of it in particular. Carl Linnaeus was a Swedish botanist and zoologist who set out the basic structure of how we name and understand life on earth. In doing so he broached the thorny question of where humans should sit among the species of the earth. A hundred years before Darwin he correctly placed us among the apes. Simon examines that relationship to see the things that mark our similarities and our differences. Simon comes face to face with 'Jock', an adult Gorilla at Bristol Zoo and talks to Prof. Robert Foley about human evolution. He also sees how Linnaeus' ideas were used to support racial science. After all if humans were more like apes perhaps some humans were more like apes than others.
What Makes Us Human?
January 18th, 2015, 06:00 PM
A new history of ideas presented by Melvyn Bragg but told in many voices. Melvyn is joined by four guests with different backgrounds to discuss a really big question. This week he's asking What makes us human? Helping him answer it are Philosopher Barry Smith, Classicist Catherine Edwards, historian Simon Schaffer and theologian Giles Fraser. For the rest of the week Barry, Catharine, Simon and Giles will take us further into the history of ideas about being human with programmes of their own. Between them they will examine the evolution of language, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, the classification of all living species, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the film Blade Runner.
Historian Justin Champion on William Whiston's Comet Theory
January 14th, 2015, 06:00 PM
Historian Justin Champion on Early Modern Comet Theory Those who watched in awe as the space craft Philae bounced its way onto a comet last November should hold a candle for William Whiston. Back in 1696 this British theologian, mathematician and acolyte of Isaac Newton published a book called 'A new theory of the earth'. In it he argued that comets were responsible for the origins of the earth and life upon it. This was what Philae was tasked to help us find out when it dotted down on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Not only does this feel like a coup for early modern farsightedness it also reminds us that much of early science was not built in opposition to Christianity but in order to justify it. Whiston's investigation of the natural world (like those of his peers) was designed to show how the biblical account of creation was true.
Theologian Giles Fraser on Thomas Aquinas
January 14th, 2015, 06:00 PM
If the universe exists what caused it to be? Theologian Giles Fraser examines the brilliant medieval scholar St. Thomas Aquinas' and his argument for God as the first cause of everything. It's part of a powerful body of ideas arguing for the logical necessity of the existence of God. But Giles also wonders how valuable these kinds of 'cosmological arguments' are for us today.
Astronomer Carole Mundell on the Big Bang
January 13th, 2015, 06:00 PM
What put the Bang in the Big Bang? On the 7th of November 1919 an announcement was made to the great and good of the Royal Society. Photographs from the observations of a solar eclipse had just arrived in London. The images provided the proof of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. The astronomer, Carole Mundell explains the significance of that moment and charts the steps that led from there to the generally accepted idea of the origin of our Universe in the energetic burst of the Big Bang. But what caused the Big Bang and what came before it? Answering one fundamental question immediately threw up the next. With the help of the mathematician, physicist and philosopher of science, Sir Roger Penrose, Carole aims to find out if those are questions mankind can ever answer. This is part of a week of programmes examining the origins of the Universe.
Jessica Frazier on Creation Myths
January 12th, 2015, 06:00 PM
How did the world begin? In the Old Testament it all starts with an act of God, but where did God come from? Dr Jessica Frazier, lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Kent and fellow of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies wants to know how different cultures deal with this most fundamental of questions. Hindus can choose from a menu of options, followers of Chinese Taoism are comfortable with the idea that we come from chaos, a potent force of creativity that continues to pulse through the life of the Universe. With the help of Ram Aithal from Birmingham's Shri Venkateswara Hindu Temple and the renowned science fiction writer Ursula K Le Guin, Jessica asks if the wonder of the great Creation myths can increase our understanding. Can they help us make sense of the data that modern science is gathering from the beginning of time? This is part of a week of programmes exploring the beginnings of the Universe.
How Did Everything Begin?
January 11th, 2015, 06:00 PM
A new history of ideas presented by Melvyn Bragg but told in many voices. Each week Melvyn is joined by four guests with different backgrounds to discuss a really big question. This week he's asking 'How did everything begin'? Helping him answer it are Cosmologist Carole Mundell, Historian Justin Champion, Theologian Giles Fraser and Creation myth Expert, Jessica Frazier For the rest of the week Carole, Giles, Justin and Jessica will take us further into the history of ideas about origins with programmes of their own. Between them they will examine early modern comet theory, Medieval Philosophy, The Big Bang and Hindu Creation myths.
Philosopher Angie Hobbs on the Value of Conscience
November 27th, 2014, 06:00 PM
Philosopher Angie Hobbs examines the concept of conscience or moral intuition and asks whether it stands up to rational scrutiny. In his Novel 'The Brothers Karamazov' the 19th century Russian writer Dostoevsky posed a moral dilemma - would it be morally right to murder an innocent child in exchange for Paradise on earth for all other humans. In other words does the end ever justify the means or are there actions which are simply unacceptable whatever the benefit? Angie Hobbs examines our moral intuitions and our sense of 'conscience' by talking through Dostoevsky's dilemma and asking what we really mean when we declare an act unconscionable. This programme is part of a week of programmes looking at the history of ideas around Freedom.
Lawyer Harry Potter on Morality and the Law
November 26th, 2014, 06:00 PM
Criminal Barrister Harry Potter asks whether the law should enforce morals, and if so, which morals? Should the law tell us what we can and can't do? Or should it go further and tell us what is right, and what is wrong? Criminal Barrister Lawyer Harry Potter asks what a moral law might be, in a multi-faith multi-cultural Britain. His key thinker is Jeremy Bentham - 18th century English eccentric and radical - whose theory of Utilitarianism fused law and morality. Harry introduces the grisly tale of cannibalism which challenged the Victorian version of Christian law; he surveys the transformation of the law from the 1960s, with former Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge: from the imprisonment of homosexuals to gay marriage. And Professor Philip Schofield from University College London explains Bentham's radical concepts, which promised the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people and would have resulted in the tearing down of our great institutions. This programme is part of a week of programmes looking at the history of ideas around Freedom.
Neuropsychologist Paul Broks on Morality and the Brain
November 25th, 2014, 06:00 PM
The eighteenth century writer Jeremy Bentham thought that telling right from wrong as simple: morally right things were the ones that increased the total of human happiness. Wrong things were the ones that increased the stock of suffering. His principle is known as utilitarianism. It sounds rational, but does it do justice to the way we actually think about morality? Some things seem wrong even when, according to utilitarianism, they are right. Recently, philosophers and psychologists have started to apply experimental methods to moral philosophy. In this programme, neuropsychologist Paul Broks looks at the recent research. Some experimenters, such as Guy Kahane in Oxford, have been putting people in scanners to see which bits of the brain are most active when they struggle with moral dilemmas. Fiery Cushman at Harvard has been getting people to carry out simulated immoral acts (such as asking volunteers to fire a fake gun at the experimenter) to see how they react to unpleasant but essentially harmless tasks. And Mike Koenigs at Wisconsin Madison University has been looking at how psychopathic criminals and people with brain damage deal with moral puzzles. One school of thought now suggests that utilitarianism, far from being the "rational" way to decide right from wrong, is actually most attractive to people who lack the normal empathic responses - people very like Jeremy Bentham, in fact. This programme is part of a week of programmes looking at the history of ideas around Freedom.
Theologian Giles Fraser on Moral Character
November 24th, 2014, 06:00 PM
How do you make good moral decisions when you have no time to make them? This is a question that troubled Giles Fraser after he met soldiers who had served in Afghanistan. The moral codes Giles had studied required a lot of time for thinking and reflection but you simply don't get that when deciding whether to shoot on the battle field. This led Giles to think about the Greek philosopher Aristotle and his system of virtue ethics - a way of thinking about morals that emphases character rather than rules. Giles talks to former SAS soldier Andy McNab and philosopher Nancy Sherman on how do you distinguish right from wrong in today's 'battle space' where the rules of engagement are no longer clear. And whether the answer is to be in a 2500 year old piece of Greek thinking. This programme is part of a week of programmes.
How Can I Tell Right from Wrong?
November 23rd, 2014, 06:00 PM
A new history of ideas presented by Melvyn Bragg but told in many voices. Melvyn is joined by four guests with different backgrounds to discuss a really big question. This week the question is 'How do I tell wrong from right?' Helping him answer it are Neuro-psychologist Paul Broks, Philosopher Angie Hobbs, Theologian Giles Fraser and Lawyer Harry Potter. For the rest of the week Paul, Angie, Giles and Harry will take us further into the history of ideas about morality with programmes of their own. Between them they will examine the idea of conscience and moral intuitions, the relationship between morality and the law, whether moral systems can work on the battlefield and what the brain seems to do when we are making moral decisions.
Philosopher Angie Hobbs on Beauty and Morality
November 20th, 2014, 06:00 PM
Philosopher Angie Hobbs is interested in Plato's idea that there is a relationship between beauty and morality. The idea that goodness is beautiful and evil things are ugly is written deep into our culture. But Plato's ideas also suggest that beautiful things could not be appreciated by evil people. Can that idea really survive the image of a Nazi Camp Kommandant listening to classical music? This programme is part of a week of programmes looking at the history of ideas around Freedom.
Historian Simon Schaffer on Beauty and Evolution
November 19th, 2014, 06:00 PM
Historian of science Simon Schaffer is interested in the purpose of beauty within evolutionary explanations. Taking the ideas of Charles Darwin as his starting point, he wants to know how and why the capacity to see beauty evolved and whether this powerful, fleeting and apparently most useless of attributes can really have an evolutionary explanation. Simon talks to neuroscientist and biologist Stephen Rose and film-maker and anthropologist Chris Wright about whether Darwin really can explain why he finds Mahler's 5th Symphony beautiful. This programme is part of a week of programmes looking at the history of ideas around Freedom.
Vicky Neale on the Mathematics of Beauty
November 18th, 2014, 06:00 PM
Mathematician Vicky Neale is keen to explain why mathematics is beautiful but also to work out whether beauty can itself be explained mathematically. There is a rich tradition of thought here going all the way back to the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, whose understanding of mathematical relationships sits at the origins of western music. Vicky talks to guitar technician Eltham Jones and to Prof Thomas Johansen from the philosophy faculty in Oxford. This programme is part of a week of programmes looking at the history of ideas around Freedom.
Barry Smith on the Philosophy of Good Taste
November 17th, 2014, 06:00 PM
Philosopher and wine enthusiast Barry Smith samples David Hume's theory of good taste. The 18th century Scottish philosopher argued that the appreciation of beauty was not easily arrived at - it required dedication, knowledge, expertise. In that sense he is the godfather of the critic and the patron saint of the connoisseur. As he delves into our sense of 'good taste' Barry recounts a wine laden tale from Don Quixote, talks to Neuroscientist Semir Zeki and to Art Historian Liz Prettejohn. This programme is part of a week of programmes looking at the history of ideas around Freedom. Producer: Jolyon Jenkins.
Why Are Things Beautiful?
November 16th, 2014, 06:00 PM
A new history of ideas presented by Melvyn Bragg but told in many voices. Melvyn is joined by four guests with different backgrounds to discuss a really big question. This week he's asking 'Why are things beautiful?' Helping him answer it are Mathematician Vicky Neale, historian of science Simon Schaffer and philosophers Barry Smith and Angie Hobbs. For the rest of the week Vicky, Simon, Barry and Angie will take us further into the history of ideas about beauty with programmes of their own. Between them they will examine the mathematics of beauty, whether beauty has moral force, whether beauty can be explained in evolutionary terms and how David Hume developed a theory of good taste.
Neuroscientist Paul Broks on Free Will and the Brain
November 13th, 2014, 06:00 PM
Paul Broks tackles an age-old philosophical argument over whether humans have free will or whether all events are pre-determined. As a neuroscientist he is interested in the latest info on how our brains work. He also goes back to the 18th century French thinker Henry Poincare who argued that the universe was entirely mechanistic and that therefore all events in it are pre-ordained. Paul talks to researchers in the field including Professor Patrick Haggard of University College London to establish whether there is any place for human free will in a determined universe. This programme is part of a week of programmes looking at the history of ideas around Freedom. Producer: Jolyon Jenkins.
Theologian Giles Fraser on Religious Freedom
November 12th, 2014, 06:00 PM
Theologian Giles Fraser thinks freedom is overrated. It has become a kind of tyranny or obsession. He is interested in the tradition of religious thinking that understands true liberation sometimes comes from accepting boundaries on life. His key thinker is the medieval philosopher and Franciscan monk William of Ockham whom he blames for this turn of events. Giles talks to Brother Sam, a contemporary Franciscan Monk, about the way his life of constraint has led him to feel free. Giles also talks to Phillip Blond, theologian and political adviser. This programme is part of a week of programmes looking at the history of ideas around Freedom.
Lawyer Harry Potter on Individual Freedom and the State
November 11th, 2014, 06:00 PM
Harry Potter is a criminal barrister and watches people being let off and locked up for a living. He is interested in the ways the state can curtail our liberty. His key thinker is John Stuart Mill, the 19th century British philosopher who argued that the state should take a minimal role in the lives of its citizens. Harry talks to Mark Dempster, ex-drug addict, dealer and now counsellor about the limits of individual liberty and to Prof. Philip Schofield of University College London about JS Mill and his ideas. This programme is part of a week of programmes looking at the history of ideas around Freedom.
Philosopher Angie Hobbs on Positive and Negative Freedom
November 10th, 2014, 06:00 PM
Angie Hobbs wants to tell you about two kinds of freedom - Negative and Positive. This influential philosophical distinction was made in the 20th century by Isaiah Berlin but it's rooted in the ideas of the hugely influential Greek Philosopher Plato. Negative freedom involves getting things out of your way - be it the state, the police or your parents. Positive freedom is the ability to take command of your own self and make decisions that are in your own interest. Berlin used the metaphor of doors: Negative freedom concerns the number of doors open to you. Positive Freedom is about how you choose between them. Angie talks to conservative MP and ex-banker Jessie Norman and to environmental activist and ex-Jain monk Satish Kumar to see how these two ideas of freedom can co-exist. This programme is part of a week of programmes looking at the history of ideas around Freedom.
What Does It Mean to Be Free?
October 26th, 2014, 06:00 PM
A new history of ideas presented by Melvyn Bragg but told in many voices. Melvyn is joined by four guests with different backgrounds to discuss a really big question. This week he's asking what does it mean to be Free? Helping him answer it are philosopher Angie Hobbs, criminal barrister Harry Potter, neuropsychologist Paul Broks and theologian Giles Fraser. For the rest of the week Angie, Giles, Harry and Paul take us further into the history of ideas with programmes of their own. Between them they'll talk about Isaiah Berlin's distinction between positive and negative freedom, JS Mill's thoughts on individual liberty and the state; what neuroscience has to say about the age old philosophical debate about Freewill and whether freedom is over-rated as a political, moral and psychological concept.