Archive for the ‘Read’ Category

Why young people should join the Lit & Phil

Posted on: September 12th, 2023 by mlpEditor

Hi, my name is Teo, I’m 17 and a member and volunteer for the Manchester Lit & Phil. I’d like to tell you how I came to be involved, and why I think you should also become a member.

“I’ve always had a passion for philosophy and wanted to find events related to my interests.”

But as a young person I found this extremely difficult. I found that most academic spaces were primarily dedicated to academics. And it was difficult to know for certain if I would be welcome.

During my search for academic events, I had stumbled upon the Manchester Lit & Phil’s website but was initially intimidated and assumed they were not accepting of young people – like the other organisations I had found.

A few months later, however, I felt even more pressure to find academic events due to wanting to do well at college.

“I needed to expand my knowledge outside of the school curriculum and have something to put in my personal statement.”

This led me to re-evaluate and then subscribe to a Manchester Lit & Phil membership. Student membership costs just £2.00 per month, and I was sure I’d make the most of it.

Initially, when I attended my first event, I was very surprised to find that many other attendees were much older than me and I thought that this might make me feel out of place. But, contrary to my beliefs, everyone was very welcoming and friendly.

“I found myself having discussions about all sorts of topics ranging from philosophy to history to science with people of a wide range of backgrounds and ages. As a result of this, I learnt how to be more comfortable in academic spaces and within academic discussions whilst also expanding my general knowledge. It was really rewarding.”

This year I’m very much looking forward to the next Lit & Phil Philosophy Forum and the Science & Technology talk on the Four Ways of Thinking: Statistical, Interactive, Chaotic and Complex by Professor David Sumpter.

“I would recommend Manchester Lit & Phil events to anyone over 16 who is looking for a friendly environment within which to explore their academic interests.”

Turning up at events where you don’t know anyone can be scary, and you may even initially feel discouraged by your age, but don’t let that put you off. Anyone with even a slight interest in an event subject, or who wants to hear from a particular speaker, should try it out.

Come to learn, socialise and even have an extra super curricular event to add to your personal statement!


September 2023

Message from the President – September 2023

Posted on: August 29th, 2023 by mlpEditor

4th September 2023

This will be the last of my monthly updates and maybe a tempting opportunity to look back over two years of challenging and ultimately rewarding times as your President.

But I’ve no intention of doing that! I’m a great believer in looking forward and we have some very positive changes to look forward to. I referred in my August update to the surge of volunteers who responded to our call. They have provided the recruits we needed to restructure Council and to develop the operational systems that will support the Lit & Phil through these challenging times.

We now have a new Council team in place and, subject to your approval at our AGM, they are ready for immediate action.

Peter Wright is our new President elect. He is a generation younger than recent incumbents and a specialist practitioner in business transformation and people skills who is already demonstrating his energy, enthusiasm and ideas.

Cigdem Balim will fill the vacant Hon Secretary role, bringing her wealth of experience as an administrator and campaigner and her passionate commitment to our educational and social responsibilities.

We are also establishing a new Executive Group on Council that will undertake key tasks to co-ordinate and support our operations.

Peter Carstensen will advise on commercial aspects, using his business development skills to identify efficiency savings and new sources of income.

Manju Bhavnani will co-ordinate our programme planning and delivery, drawing on her wide experience of committee work and her love of the arts and science.

Alan Wareham will expand our marketing activity, using his current consultancy skills in digital marketing and his impressive committee experience.

And finally, we have a young Council recruit in Charlotte Lanighan who will bring us current admin and paralegal skills and ideas for adding more young people to our audiences.

There are exciting times ahead and I’ll be hanging around to lend a hand. And if you want that nostalgic look back over the past two years I’ll be waiting at the bar.


See you at the AGM,

Ian Cameron

Impressions of an uplifting partnership event with MACFEST

Posted on: July 31st, 2023 by mlpEditor

Our international event on the 9th July in partnership with MACFEST – Kindness, Integrity and Leadership in a troubled world – was a truly memorable occasion.

It brought together two speakers of considerable eminence and international repute: Professor Akbar Ahmad from Washington DC, and Professor Karin Voigt from Heidelberg. Both shared insights from their own individual scholarship and life-long commitment to the promotion of diversity and intercultural harmony and the event was ably hosted by our very own President, Ian Cameron.

The international speakers navigated their way through an engaging and uplifting discussion on the timeless value of compassion, kindness and integrity in sustaining benevolent, successful leadership through the ages. A recording of the online event can be watched on MACFEST’s Facebook page.

The event also brought the Lit & Phil to the attention of a wider international audience, many of whom said they had felt privileged and indeed enriched to have attended.

Typical of the many after event posts from across the world:

“….an enthralling interaction; and that is what is so badly needed in the present troubled times; kindness, compassion but, above all, tolerance.”

Most evocative of all was a brilliantly observed overview from a student at American University’s School of International Service, in an article since published in one of Pakistan’s most popular English Language newspapers, “The Daily Times”: Planting a Seed.

The article concludes with the sentiment that:

“…the timeless value of human compassion surpasses the ever-changing technology, customs, and protocols of our current day; and carries a message not only of hope, but also of what one can do on an individual level, by “planting the seedling of kindness to all those around you”.

The online event marked the beginning of a mutually beneficial collaboration with the multi-award winning MACFEST organisation and its inspirational founder and director, Qaisra Shahraz. We’re really looking forward to partnering with them again next year.

If you or the organisation you work for are interested in collaborating with the Lit & Phil, please get in touch. We’d love to hear your ideas.


Dhun Daji, Elected Member of the Manchester Lit & Phil’s Council

Interview with Qaisra Shahraz

Posted on: July 5th, 2023 by mlpEditor

Q: MACFEST was founded in 2017 following the Manchester Arena attack, to bring Muslim and non-Muslim communities together. What progress, if any, have you seen in connecting communities in Greater Manchester since then? 

A: People of all faiths, ages and backgrounds have come together at our events to watch films, perform together, listen to poetry and musical concerts, enjoy art exhibitions, and meet people from migrant communities.

“MACFEST facilitates getting to know about the art and cultural heritage of Muslim civilisations as well as having nuanced debates and discussions in safe spaces.”

While other organisations closed during the pandemic, we delivered 75 events in an attempt to connect people who were feeling isolated without their communities.

The festival has provided an excellent platform that celebrates both aspiring and established writers, poets, artists and cultural champions. With an outstanding commitment to inclusion at our festivals, we host at least 10 Muslim communities in Greater Manchester that represent every continent. We’ve also worked with schools to enrich their curriculums by encouraging them to practice multiple art forms and celebrate cultural diversity.


Q: To date, which MACFEST events do you think have been most impactful? And what have been your personal highlights?  

A: There are so many to choose from!  Our annual celebration of poets reciting in their own languages or hearing the music and sounds of different countries. Or our 25 annual women events that included dance performances from Turkey and Indonesia. Plus, child-friendly discussions on race and climate change.  So many of our events over the years have had a huge, positive impact. This is especially true of our collaborations with schools which encouraged young children to express themselves creatively, embrace their cultures and diversity in general.

Many of my favourites from this year celebrate and showcase the lives and work of Muslim women, such as: an exhibition of female Afghani artists living under Taliban rule, a performance by Sudanese girls and Turkish women, learning about three centuries of female Muslim travel writers as well as the challenges faced by a deaf film maker on International Women’s Day.


Q: We’re really looking forward to our joint online event on the 9th of July: ‘Kindness & Integrity – Leadership in a troubled world’. Why did you find it important to organise this event at this time? 

A: Personally, I’m a huge fan of Professor Akbar’s work. His mere presence enriches our festival, as it did two years ago. The topic that he chose ties in beautifully with his lifelong commitment to building bridges and promoting harmony between people of faith.

“We are living in a troubled world filled with conflicts and divisions. Cultures of hate and the ‘othering’ of people persist.”

All the while, extremists stoke the fires of division.  So, there is a real need for leaders to take ownership of their actions and words to promote peace and kindness in the world.


Q: How does Professor Akbar Ahmed’s work align with MACFEST’s ambitions?

A: MACFEST’s mission is to challenge Islamophobia, break barriers, promote community and social cohesion and, of course, spread sweetness with our slogan ‘Spread Honey Not Hate.’ The marvellous work of Professor Akbar Ahmed – an academic, author, poet, playwright, filmmaker, former diplomat and, of course, ardent promoter of interfaith dialogue – aligns beautifully with MACFEST and its mission.

Internationally applauded and recognised for his incredible feat of achievements and work, he has devoted his whole life – through his bestselling books, travel documentaries, historical film, poetry and plays – to promoting peace and a better understanding of history, Muslims and building bridges.

“Professor Akbar is a leading figure in the Muslim world and is highly respected for his intellect and nuanced discussions on contemporary issues. The BBC rightly called him, ‘the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam’.”

Most importantly, for creating a space for dialogue between people of all faiths, including with the Jewish communities.


Q: You have many accolades, including being an accomplished novelist. Why do you think your novels have achieved such popularity at home and abroad, especially in Germany where some of your books are taught in schools?  

A: I arrived in the UK at a young age, carrying valuable childhood memories of Pakistan with me. These memories served me well, enabling me to write about my home country in my first three novels. As a migrant woman growing up in Manchester, I was fascinated by my multiple identities. This was the inspiration for my early stories, including the famous ones, A Pair of Jeans and Escape, both prescribed literary texts for the German Abitur, the equivalent to A-Level English.

I am more known in Germany than in the UK as thousands of students have been studying my books since 1996. They are popular because of their content – they deal with migrant and cultural issues, relevant to Germany which is a country with a large migrant population.

“These stories enabled me to visit German schools, build cultural bridges and have nuanced discussions with students and their teachers on various issues including debunking myths about Islam and Muslim women.”

Thanks to my stories, I met Professor Karin Vogt from Heidelberg, who is also on the international panel of our partnership event. I have taken part in her university teacher training programmes, highlighting to her trainees the importance of celebrating diversity, inclusion, and to ‘get out of one’s box’, to look beyond our own little world, to respect other people’s norms, faiths, cultures, and ways of lives. It works both ways.

Through our strong and valuable friendship both Karin and I have found that our lives are totally enriched by being part of and learning about each other’s world. She has visited my Pakistani Muslim household in Manchester and met my family. I have stayed with her in her German household and watched her beautiful children grow over time. I’m delighted she too joining us for the online discussion.

‘The Manchester Lit & Phil and the Transatlantic Slave Trade’ – A response to the UCLan report

Posted on: June 8th, 2023 by mlpEditor

As someone who is deeply committed to promoting social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, I have reflected on the research report on The Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and its implications for our society today. In my response, I have sought to highlight some of the key findings and recommendations from the report, and to suggest some possible ways in which we can use this information to build a more just and equitable society.

I want to make it clear that this response is written in a personal capacity and reflects my own views and opinions. While I have drawn on the report’s findings and recommendations, my interpretation and analysis are my own, and I take full responsibility for any errors or omissions.

My hope is that my response will be a starting point for further discussion and action, as we work towards greater understanding and reconciliation in our communities and institutions.


Read Professor Erinma Bell’s full response here

‘The Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1780-1865’

Posted on: June 8th, 2023 by mlpEditor

Foreword by Ian Cameron

It’s my pleasure and privilege to introduce this study report into the Manchester Lit & Phil’s links with the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

The Lit & Phil is a venerable institution, dating back to 1781. Manchester then was the beating heart of the world’s first industrial revolution, powered by technical innovation, surging capitalism and mass migration from agricultural labour to coal-powered factory production. And this global powerhouse was fed by cotton, hand picked by enslaved Africans who were sold into bondage, transported across the ocean and incarcerated for life on plantations in the West Indies and the newly independent USA.

The Lit & Phil was established to promote learning and exchange ideas. Our members were successful, educated men (and at that time they were all men!) who understood how the world worked. They understood the economics of the triangular trade; they understood the opportunities and risks of industrial development; they knew from their classics and history that slavery had existed since the beginning of recorded time and that the trade had intensified and flourished through multiple networks worldwide. They may too have dabbled in new quasi-scientific theories that sought to establish racial hierarchies.

These issues of commerce, history and science would no doubt have been used to explain and to justify the concept and practice of slavery. But we can imagine that debate at the Lit & Phil had another dimension. We know that there were progressive members of our Society who questioned the existence of slavery from a moral and philosophical standpoint. Their views came from their religious beliefs, particularly from the nonconformist churches that flourished in the new industrial towns. They came too from the humanitarian concepts that were emerging from the age of enlightenment. The rights of man were set out in the works of social philosophers and fervently promoted by radicals and revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic.

Many of our members supported abolition and some became leading abolitionists. Others undoubtedly benefitted from the trade, directly or indirectly. It would be fascinating now to have an insight into the conversations and arguments that must have taken place at the Lit & Phil, between abolitionists, apologists and those who were caught in the middle. In recent times our members had tried to uncover some of the details, but with little success. A more purposeful and systematic approach was clearly needed.

Following the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 our then President, Dr Susan Hilton, and Vice President Prof Tony Jackson commissioned the Institute for Black Atlantic Research at the University of Central Lancashire to carry out a study into the Lit & Phil’s links with the Transatlantic Slave Trade. We now have the study report before us and can look forward to better understanding our shared history as we explore ways to develop an appropriate and effective response to calls for a revaluation of national attitudes towards history and race.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was abolished in 1807, but slavery in the USA continued until 1865 – producing cotton to be sent to Manchester. This report, addressing the period 1780-1865, is a major achievement and I must take this opportunity to thank Prof Alan Rice of UCLan who led the study team, with lead researcher and writer Dr Andrea Sillis, ably supported by Drahoslava Machova, Dr Stephanie Monro and Kirsty Roberts. I should particularly thank Dr Sillis, who contributed an extra 43 days of work on a voluntary basis. They put in a remarkable effort, not only to work their way through what is left of our archives, but also to explore the public records and other external links that provide a broader picture of some of our early members and their activities.

The potential scope of investigations is huge, but we wanted to go public with our research as soon as we were able. It was decided, therefore, that this initial study would focus on those members of the Lit & Phil who had links, direct or indirect, with the profits from slavery. We plan to pick up the thread in a second phase, which will focus upon the lives and activities of our abolitionists, offering a more complete view of the Lit & Phil’s position on the question of slavery.

It will, of course, be appropriate to consider both study phases together, but we decided to use this first phase to invite an early response. We propose to develop that response in consultation with those whose lives may have been directly impacted, through racism and inequality, by the legacies of transatlantic slavery.

Our first step has been to consult a number of eminent Mancunians with an interest and expertise in the subject who generously agreed to review this report and to advise on next steps. One of those reviewers, peace activist Prof Erinma Bell MBE, has been kind enough to provide the written comments that are reproduced alongside this report.

Based on all the advice received, we now plan to reach out to Manchester’s diverse and underprivileged communities to develop mutually beneficial relationships and collaborations. We know that the diversity of our current membership and activities is inadequate and we will work hard to understand why that is and to fix it. We will build on our history of discussion, mutual learning and social interaction to open new opportunities to further engage with the past and, looking forward, to promote inclusivity, equality and respect for diversity within society at large.

So, there are exciting and demanding times ahead for the Lit & Phil and this report represents an important step on that journey. I hope you find it interesting and informative. And if you think you might be able to contribute in any way to developing or implementing our response, we would love to hear from you.


Ian Cameron, President

8 June 2023

Read the report

Read the media release

A Tribute to Professor Tom McLeish

Posted on: May 15th, 2023 by mlpEditor

On 26 October 2021, Manchester Lit & Phil were treated to a fantastic lecture from Professor McLeish at Manchester Cathedral, as part of our 2021 Cathedral Series. The series was part of the celebration of 600 years since the granting of a licence from King Henry V and Pope Martin V to establish a collegiate church in Manchester in 1421. Tom’s lecture was titled ‘Lessons from Medieval Science, and Science-Theology Today’.

Unfortunately, Tom developed an incurable cancer in the summer of 2022, and passed away on 27 February, at the age of 60. It was a very peaceful and dignified death surrounded by his very caring family.

On 27 April I attended a service of Thanksgiving and Celebration of his life at York Minster, along with about 400 other people from the many parts of his life. It was a great privilege to be there, and hear about his very full, active, and fascinating life. Tom was a true polymath. He was not just an academic physicist, but an expert on so many things, a competent sportsman, a lay reader in the Anglican church, a very competent astrologist, and he had a deep interest in music – amongst many other talents.

His wife and all their four children took an active and dignified part in the service and the presentation of the music. Tom was quite a unique man, who will be very much missed.

Dr Susan Hilton, Immediate Past President


A recording of the service for Tom McLeish at York Minster can be watched on YouTube

Interview with Professor Caroline Jay

Posted on: February 27th, 2023 by mlpEditor

Q: You work at the intersection of Psychology and Computer Science. Why is it important to consider the relationship between human behaviour and machines?

A: If we want technology to work for us, we have to study how we use it. Theories of how we think, feel and behave in general terms can be useful in informing the design process. But they only go so far. This is because using technology itself changes our behaviour. It’s essential to study these things empirically.

“We need to continually reflect on whether technology is working as it should and whether it is having a positive or negative impact on society.”

Q: What can the structure of the machines we build tell us about ourselves as individuals and as a society?

A: We think of machines as objective, but we forget that they are designed by humans. They map very closely to our thought patterns and behaviours. Inadvertently, Artificial intelligence has been great at reflecting back to us some of society’s deep-rooted inequalities.

An example of this is facial recognition technology, which works better for White people than for Black. This is because of the assumptions made by the engineers who created it. It is important to learn from these situations. We need to use their teachings to design better technology and, more importantly, a fairer society.


Q: You’ve been studying Psychology and Computer Science for two decades. Have there been any standout, pivotal moments for both your personal research and that of your peers during this time?

A: For many years, Artificial Intelligence has relied on large amounts of data and significant computational power. It is very energy intensive. This is not environmentally sustainable, so we really need to change our approach.

My thinking around this has been influenced by Cynthia Rudin at Duke University, and my close collaborator Alaa Alahmadi. Our work has shown that using human expertise and cognition to inform the design of AI can vastly reduce the amount of data and computation it requires to make decisions. The way in which this kind of AI works is also much more transparent and easier for humans to understand. This goes against the current rhetoric that says ‘the computer knows better than us – give it the data and it will be more efficient and effective’.

Of course, current AI can do some things more effectively than humans, but it is seriously limited in other ways.

“I think in the future hybrid approaches to AI, where humans and machines work together, will become much more widespread.”

Q: What do you think our relationship with technology will look like in 50 years’ time? For example, will the use of technology be more democratised?

A: I’d like to think technology use will become more democratised but, at the moment, it’s becoming more polarised. People who don’t have access to technology for social or economic reasons are becoming excluded from important aspects of society, like banking and education.

As we develop new technologies, we must make sure everyone’s voices are heard, and that people are able to consider how it would affect their lives.

“I’d like to see much greater use of responsible research and innovation practices.”

These ought to evaluate the benefits and harms that new technologies might pose for everyone in society. They should be used earlier on in the design process, so they are not just an add-on, but can truly direct development.

Heady days of post-war happenings: the Lit & Phil at 36 George Street

Posted on: February 27th, 2023 by mlpEditor

My late husband, Tom and I became members of the Lit & Phil in 1955. We had been recruited by a Miss Blackledge, who joined in 1953. We had made her acquaintance through our involvement with the Manchester Area Youth Film Council and her Presidential role with the Girls and Lads Club Association.

The registered address at that time was the Portico Library because the Society’s original Georgian house at 36 George Street had been blown up. It was then completely demolished by the Fire Brigade to provide a much-needed fire-break during one of the air raids in the Manchester Blitz.

Lit & Phil Council meetings were held there and the occasional lecture. The first Lit & Phil event we attended was in the Reading Room at the Portico. Although the audience was necessarily small, some of us had to sit on piles of dusty tomes as the Portico itself had not fully recovered from the effects of the Blitz.

Celebrated sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe was a Lit & Phil member

The talk on ‘Abstract Impressionism’ was given by two members – Marcus and Mitzi Cunliffe. Marcus taught American Studies at the University and Mitzi was a sculptor whose best-known work is the golden BAFTA mask, which is still in use at award ceremonies. It was the first Tom and I had heard about Jackson Pollock et al. We were fascinated and decided there and then that joining the Society was a good move and promised an interesting and intriguing future.

There were about 350 members when we joined…Lectures were mostly held in the Reynolds Hall at the Manchester College of Technology (later to become UMIST), at the Whitworth Gallery, and at various venues at Manchester University.

A new home for the Lit & Phil at 36 George Street…

During this time, plans were being made for the construction of a new home on the site of the demolished building in George Street. This was officially opened in September 1960. Tom and I were present at the inaugural address given by the President of the Royal Society, Sir Cyril Hinshelwood, its title being ‘The Arts and the Sciences’, a topic much discussed in intellectual circles at that time. I have a faded photograph of much younger versions of the two of us seated on the second row, on either side of our guest, Jim Whittaker.

During the planning stage, discussions were also held about the best location for the Society’s visual aid equipment – an epidiascope and a slide projector. It just so happened that the Manchester & Salford Film Society, of which Tom was the Chairman, was desperately seeking a new home to continue in its attempts to bring art house and world cinema to the people of Manchester.

…and a new home for the Manchester & Salford Film Society

The Lit & Phil Council’s agreement was obtained for the construction of a proper projection box at the rear of the new building’s lecture theatre, which would accommodate the Film Society’s two 16mm projectors. This would kill two birds with one stone; the Film Society would have somewhere to hold its performances and the Lit & Phil would be able to offer film projection facilities to any organisation hiring the theatre for its meetings. Film Society committee members would act as projectionists when needed…

Experiments with microwaves alongside Empson’s literary criticism

Of the hundreds of lectures I must have attended at George Street, only a few are still vivid in my mind: Henry Lipson’s lecture about microwaves where he made a cake in a crude prototype oven of his own devising. He passed bits of cake to the members present; it was not very nice. Then there was Sir William Empson sporting a beard that looked like Spanish Moss telling us about ‘Seven Kinds of Ambiguity’. I am afraid it was as incomprehensible to many of us as the most erudite and obscure offerings of the Science and Technology Section.

Dreams of bringing contemporary art to the masses

The opening of the new house had a surprising and totally unexpected galvanising effect on a group of the more forward-looking members. I particularly remember Leonard Cohen who owned Henry’s department store on Market Street. His aim in life was to bring art to the masses. He exhibited Epstein’s Adam in the basement of his store and donated a fountain to Piccadilly Gardens.

The new house so inspired him, he conceived the notion that George Street could become the epicentre of artistic activity in Manchester. He actually envisaged a new Opera House could be built between 36 George Street and the Art Gallery. His idea to have an extra storey built on the flat roof of No.36 to house an Arts Workshop accessible from the car park was, as it turned out, a structural impossibility.

As a preliminary step toward achieving some of these ambitions, a group of members including Leonard in their own time and on their own initiative set up the Manchester Institute of Contemporary Art, MICA. They were not to be outdone by London where the Institute of Contemporary Art had just been opened. Most of MICA’s events took place at the Lit & Phil house. Tom was the film officer and I was a committee member. We played to packed houses when films of an experimental and avant-garde nature were screened.

Some of the Lit & Phil members involved in all this activity were, as I hazily recall, Maurice Pariser – who unfortunately died before these dreams could be fulfilled, and Robert Sheldon and Edmund Dell who departed to become Labour Members of Parliament.

But the heady days of post-war optimism didn’t last…

We had the young Seamus Heaney reading his poetry on two occasions, a whole host of North West poets and many up-and-coming artists of the day. These were heady days expressing the general air of post-war optimism that seemed to promise a life more exciting and interesting than heretofore. It was undoubtedly the presence of the new, modern and accommodating building in the centre of Manchester that triggered these ambitious but finally impossible dreams…

Unfortunately, it eventually became apparent that something was radically wrong with the fabric of the building. Cracks began to appear in the walls and the flat roof leaked. The fault lay in the use of high alumina cement in its construction. This was a wonder innovation of the 50’s lauded for its quick-drying properties. The firms involved in the building of the house had gone into liquidation and there was no alternative but to sell the site and become peripatetic until new permanent premises could be found…


…Tom died in 2007 at the age of 85 but if he could see us now, he would be greatly gratified to see the (Manchester) Literary & Philosophical Society, of which he was very fond, flourishing and growing in spite of its past vicissitudes. I cannot believe that I have achieved doyenneship of the Society in my 94th year and can still remember listening to Marcus and Mitzi in 1955.


This is an extract of an article originally published in 2014 in vol. 152 of the Manchester Memoirs. Huge thanks to Marjorie Ainsworth for her incredible support of the Manchester Lit & Phil since 1955.

Interview with Dr Anders Sandberg

Posted on: January 30th, 2023 by mlpEditor

Q: Do you believe that climate change is the greatest threat to humanity’s long-term survival? If not, what is?

A: Climate change on its own is not the end of the world… but it makes the world worse. It amplifies other risks, and it might make it harder for us to solve the problems we need to solve for our survival. Nuclear war, bioweapons, uncontrolled AI and the fragility of the global supply chains keeping us alive are more direct risks.

“We need a peaceful, prosperous world with less distractions to handle the risks.”

Q: Out of the “low probability, high risk” existential threats that you’ve studied, is there one that you think we’re not talking about enough? Conversely, is there one whose danger we are exaggerating?

A: We used to not talk enough about nuclear war. When I grew up in the 1980s, it was an ever present, ominous threat. As we later found out, there were some extremely close calls where things truly hung in the balance. Then 1990 came. The Eastern Bloc disintegrated, and people seemed to forget about the missiles in their silos. This is despite the many accidents and close calls. For more than 20 years the threat was ignored. Now it’s back in our minds again.

“The moral of this story is that, collectively, we often quickly forget about very important threats.”

One threat that people have conveniently forgotten about today is that of pandemics. We are so tired of Covid. Yet, the important lessons on how to handle the next pandemic (which could be worse) need to be learned.


Q: As a Fellow at the University of Oxford Philosophy Faculty, what role can philosophy play in helping us confront such existential risks?

One function of philosophy is to help us figure out the moral value at stake: how bad are these risks compared to others? How do we balance our current needs against those of future generations? How does fairness come in to play? Another function of it is helping us reason under uncertainty: how do we think well about future, unprecedented events? When we know we are uncertain about important things, how should we act? Is it better to be safe than sorry or is it better to wait and see?

“Philosophy is great at working with problems for which we do not yet have a great theoretical understanding. As we figure it out, it often moves into some other specialised department. But thinking wide and abstract about problems is a good start.”

Q: Considering how our over-reliance on technology is one of the primary causes of man-made global warming, how do you think that technology can help us mitigate its risk?

A: Not having technology can also be dangerous. Our ancestors often died from starvation, exposure and disease: they were very vulnerable. Similarly, old-fashioned industry and agriculture tends to be more polluting. It requires more land (hence leading to a shrinking global biodiversity). The solution to climate change involves using low-carbon energy sources. Making agriculture efficient enough so that less land is needed, telework, carbon capture and so on. It is not just about technology, of course, but if going green is cheaper, more luxurious and more convenient than the current practice, it will happen.