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News: April/May 2016

Umberto Eco, novelist and philosopher, dies at 84 • Virtue in Virtual Reality • Universe “full of bubbles” — News reports by Anja Steinbauer

Umberto Eco (5 Jan 1932 - 19 Feb 2016)

Umberto Eco once wrote: “We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death.” This limit has now sadly caught up with the author of these words himself. Philosopher, semiotician, linguist and novelist Eco has died at the age of 84 of pancreatic cancer from which he had been suffering for two years.

Eco first came to wide public attention for his 1980 novel The Name of the Rose, a medieval whodunnit whose plot centred on a lost work by Aristotle, and whose title connected it with Eco’s interests in philosophy of language. “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name does smell as sweet.” He followed this with the complex thriller Foucault’s Pendulum, packed full of hidden philosophical and literary allusions, not to mention a pacy plot whose moral concerns humanity’s insatiable hunger for meaning in a changing world. Yet Eco claimed to be a novelist only at weekends: during the week he taught at the University of Bologna and wrote numerous academic texts particularly on semiotics (the study of signs, communications and meaning-making).

Bubble Universes

Stanford University’s prestigious Bunyan Lectures, proposed by philosopher James T. Bunyan in 1970, are intended to “give a reasonable explanation of the origin and structure of the Universe, the beginnings of life and the ascent and destiny of man.” This year’s chosen speaker was Alexander Vilenkin, Professor of Physics and Director of the Institute of Cosmology at Tufts University. He is a proponent of the eternal inflation model, and used his lecture on March 9 to bring to public attention the idea of ‘bubble universes’ created during the Big Bang. They are distinct regions of the inflationary multiverse, which can decay to a vacuum. The decaying regions constitute sub-universes which are causally independent of each other, though Vilenkin is investigating the possibility of interactions between them. Each bubble universe is characterised by its own distinctive physical laws, which apply consistently across its own region of spacetime. Concerning the significance of this theory, Vilenkin remarked: “It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape: they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.”

Culture, Lies and Individuals

Immanuel Kant famously teaches us that it is completely up to each individual to decide not to tell lies. However, new research suggests that social context strongly shapes our behaviour with respect to honesty or dishonesty. Findings of a detailed study reported in Nature in March reveal that individuals are more likely to lie if they live in a country with high levels of corruption and fraud at the level of government institutions. Simon Gächter and Jonathan Schulz used data on government corruption, tax evasion, and election fraud from the World Bank and Freedom House, to create an index of institutionalised rule-breaking. Over a five year period they travelled to 23 countries, conducting tests with individuals measuring their propensity to cheat and deceive in dice-based betting games. The results showed a clear correlation between dishonesty on institutional and personal levels. Schulz, an experimental economist at Yale University, comments: “It seems that people benchmark their dishonesty with what they’re surrounded by in their daily life.”

What’s Virtue in Virtual Reality?

Prof. Thomas Metzinger, a philosopher at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, is looking forward to the impending launch of virtual reality (VR) gaming equipment such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. However, he warns that we don’t yet know the moral effects and long-term psychological effects of continual immersion in a virtual world. He frets that repeated immersive experience of violent acts, for instance, may traumatise individuals or make them more likely to commit similar acts in real life. Therefore in an article in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI, he and Michael Madary have for the first time outlined a code of ethics for VR users, which they believe should include principles such as not doing anything as an avatar that you wouldn’t do in the real world.

Philosopher Honoured by Medical Establishment

Philosopher and essayist Konrad Paul Liessmann, 62, has been awarded the Watzlawick Prize, given by the Vienna medical association to individuals who have furthered the discourse between the sciences and practical efforts to create a more humane world. Liessmann, one of Austria’s best known intellectuals, is a founding member and academic head of the eminent interdisciplinary forum Philosophicum Lech.

Konstantinos Despotopoulos (8 Feb 1913 - 7 Feb 2016)

Greece has lost a prominent philosopher-politician. Konstantinos Despotopoulos passed away the day before his 103rd birthday. A philosophy lecturer at the University of Athens, he was jailed during the civil war of the late 1940s, and later during the Rule of the Colonels in the late 1960s he was exiled to France, where he worked at CNRS and the University of Nancy. After the fall of the dictatorship he was professor and rector of Panteion University in Athens, before becoming Minister of National Education and Religious Affairs from 1989 to 1990. He fought for the abolition of the death penalty and to promote gender equality. He wrote thirty-two books on ethics, the nature of freedom, and the philosophy of action as well as history and politics.

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