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Radio review: Free Thinking, State of the Nation, and Exiles

17 January 2020


Free Thinking (Radio 3, Tuesday of last week) examined “panpsychism”, the notion that all things have consciousness

Free Thinking (Radio 3, Tuesday of last week) examined “panpsychism”, the notion that all things have consciousness

WHEN it comes to saving the planet, are you a “deep ecologist” or a “shallow environmentalist”? It depends ultimately on your motivation: the survival merely of our species, or the survival of global consciousness in its totality.

“Deep ecology” is a logical consequence of “panpsychism”, described by Matthew Sweet in Free Thinking (Radio 3, Tuesday of last week) as “the new insurgency in philosophy departments”; although the notion that all things have something that we might call “consciousness” would not have sounded outrageous to some ancient Greek philosophers.

It all comes down to how you define “consciousness”. If you mean self-awareness and the ability to generate thought, then panpsychism is clearly absurd. But, if consciousness can be defined as something like the experience of being, then it might be extended to all matter, regardless of whether that experience entails self-reflection.

Most intriguing in this discussion was how panpsychism offers a possible antidote to the current obsession with neuroscience as a means of explaining human consciousness. It is fair to say that the philosophers did not have it all their own way in this programme, but offered some useful new tools into an already weighty disciplinary toolkit.

State of the Nation (Radio 4, weekdays), while offering nothing new on Britain in the era of Brexit, did at least give some great writers a chance to have a rant. Foremost in this respect was Howard Jacobson on Monday, whose diatribe was occasioned by an encounter with an uncouth young man. In lambasting those of “no intellect and low morals”, he invoked an array of Victorian writers. “Brexit didn’t mean Brexit. . . It meant Disraeli, Gaskell, and Matthew Arnold.” It also meant great copy for rhetoricians such as Jacobson.

The Leave camp can afford to be calmer. Lionel Shriver, on Wednesday, inquired: Where does all the anger come from? Maybe, she suggests, the whole Brexit thing will prove to be less important than we think. Even had victorious Leavers danced the conga around Trafalgar Square, one can hardly imagine it being as provocative as Shriver’s faux-conciliation.

The anniversary of the Mayflower’s sailing will, I trust, inspire programming a good deal more competent than Exiles (Radio 4, weekdays); a ten-part drama that ham-fistedly attempts to find parallels between the experience of Puritans of the 17th century and the asylum-seekers of the early 21st. At the centre of it all is a woman used and abused in turn by a lecherous Anglican vicar and a dumb, fundamentalist husband; and in which the appropriation of Latin polyphony to indicate pious music-making is a minor impertinence in the context of a script that demonstrates no interest whatsoever in what might motivate people of faith, now or then.

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