The Aula Magna of the campus of IE University in Segovia was filled with people who didn’t want to miss what A. C. Grayling was going to say. The philosopher arrived with British punctuality. During his hour-long talk he explained some of the ideas that “any good conversationalist” should reflect on.
In the first part of his talk he analyzed the way foreigners regard China. Although China’s economy is often considered a model, he warned that China is a dangerous example: “The leaders of some emerging nations who have seen their power reduced through elections see China as an example of how it is possible to deny democracy and nevertheless have a healthy economy.” This kind of thinking is pernicious, says Grayling, because “human rights and individual liberties would become a thing of the past.”
He also warned of some of the atrocities going on in the China of 2015. “Some 20 million people are in administrative detention and are sent to work in reeducation camps.” And he is emphatic: “This is part of China’s economic accomplishments. The Chinese have almost no politicians, and civil organizations are almost non-existent. The opposition parties are merely testimonial. There are more than 62 crimes that are punished by death. Before these executions, they remove some of the criminal’s organs, such as the corneas. These kinds of practices are not desirable in a developed country.” And Grayling invites us to reflect: “China’s enormous success must make us ask if we are going to accept that developing nations, and even some advanced ones, begin to look like China or if, on the contrary, we are going to hold tight to the great accomplishments of our society in human rights.” Grayling says the solution would be a Chinese president who was brave enough to say ‘we don’t just have to develop economically, but in many other ways: a model that discredits human rights is not acceptable in the long run.’
While he says he doesn’t like to generalize, the philosopher feels that the Chinese are very good at business, and he thinks he knows the reason why: “The business world likes stability, to be able to predict what’s going to happen. And an authoritarian government brings that stability and certainty that the economy wants.” In the West, on the other hand, the change in government every few years, along with changes in regulations, bring turmoil to the financial world.
In Grayling’s opinion, the changes that could take place if some countries were to imitate China “should be reflected upon by any educated person because such changes would alter the world and the way we conceive of it for future generations.” According to this thinker, it is the obligation of any guest to be a good conversationalist and be informed about things and able to defend his opinion in a debate. Someone who listens to what you’re telling him.” All the problems of the world, he says, and certainly the domestic ones, “could be solved if we just listened to what other people are saying. A good conversationalist is a good guest at the banquet of life.”
After this invitation to reflect, Grayling spoke of his concept of neuroscience. He began by citing the most recent technological advances that demonstrate the functioning of the brain in real time and its responses every time that it takes on a task. “We’ve made huge advances. But this isn’t enough to understand conscience and psychological phenomena, contrary to what we had expected would happen.” The activations that those tests and scans show in the brain “tell us little about thought, which in practice occurs at micro levels that are impossible to describe, according to the experts.”
C. Grayling is convinced that neuroscience will continue to advance and will broaden its reach “but not even then will it ever be able to tell us everything we can know about the mind.” The professor maintains this not only because he believes, like Descartes, that the mind and the brain are two separate things, but especially because “to understand minds it is necessary to add something to the investigation of the brain: what the humanities offer us. And of all the subjects, the one that offers us the most information for knowing it is literature.” Grayling explains this statement in the following way: “When we read literature and history we see that there are things that unite us, that we have in common and that let us to have solidarity, to feel pity… To relate well to each other.” He adds that we all love to know what people have done and why, and that literature is “like hundreds of windows that open up to different ways of being. Based on experiences that are very different from our own, we can also learn about ourselves, but above all we can understand other people.”
Again the philosopher spoke here of listening to and understanding others “so as to be able to go on being together in a progressive way and living in a way that we can enjoy.” People who, like him, do not consider themselves to be religious should seek spirituality in humanism: understanding what it means to be human and happy. “What should constitute a full life? We spend too much time arguing, and there’s no time to lose. There is only experience, and it must be filled with enjoyment. If we do so, we’ll live three hundred years, three hundred lives.”
C. Grayling ended his inspiring talk with a lovely reflection: “We have to bring to everything we know at least the benefit of what we give to a painting: the advantage of some good light.”