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News: June/July 2017

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance author dies • French Prez was assistant to Paul Ricouer • Hawking recommends leaving Earth — News reports by Anja Steinbauer

Robert Pirsig

Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died on 24 April. At the heart of the book is a fictionalised account of a motorcycle journey across America made by Pirsig and his young son Chris in 1968. The novel combined reflections on Greek philosophy, Zen Buddhism, technology and culture in a profound inquiry into the nature of values. Pirsig wrote it mainly in the small hours of each morning and had immense difficulty finding a publisher. On publication in 1974, it immediately became enormously popular, selling 5 million copies.


The newly-elected President of France, Emmanuel Macron, who has a degree in philosophy, was once an assistant to the famed French philosopher Paul Ricouer (1913-2005). In the acknowledgements of his last book La Mémoire, l’Histoire, l’Oubli (Memory, History, Forgetting), Ricouer thanks his editorial assistant for a pertinent critique of the manuscript. That assistant was the man who has now been elected to occupy the Élysée Palace. This fact has set the media asking what influence Ricouer’s ideas had on Macron, and whether this can provide clues to the likely course of Macron’s presidency. Ricouer was best known for using the methods of hermeneutics (the interpretation of texts) to probe the relationship between the self and all kinds of cultural phenomena and symbols.

Killing Animals

People become more likely to support killing animals when they are reminded of death, regardless of their attitudes about animal rights, according to new research from the Psychology Department at the University of Arizona. Lead researcher Uri Lifshin explains, “If you’re an animal lover or if you care about animals rights, then overall, yes, you are going to support the killing of animals much less; however when you’re reminded of death you’re still going to be a little bit more reactive.” Though the study didn’t include overt animal rights activists, it covered a range of attitudes towards animals. Gender did not make a difference in the results.

The study, based on the department’s existing work on terror management theory provides new insight into the psychology behind humans’ willingness to kill animals and could also potentially help scientists better understand the psychological motivations behind the murder and genocide of humans, said Lifshin: “We dehumanize our enemies when there is genocide. There is research in social psychology showing that if you go to places where genocide is happening and you ask the people who are doing the killing to try to explain, they’ll often say things like, ‘Oh, they’re cockroaches, they’re rats, we just have to kill them all.’ So if we ever want to really understand how to reduce or fight human-to-human genocide, we have to understand our killing of animals.”

Hubert Dreyfus

“Reports of my demise are not exaggerated,” was the message posted on Hubert Dreyfus’s Twitter feed shortly after his death from cancer on 22 April at the age of 87. Harvard educated, Dreyfus taught at UC Berkeley for nearly 50 years. He was known not only for his numerous publications but also for being an excellent teacher, introducing his students to the ideas of Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Søren Kierkegaard. Though he had formally retired in 1994, he continued teaching until his last class in December 2016.

Dreyfus is famous for his cogent criticism of AI. Based on the work of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, Dreyfus shed doubt on the assumptions of first generation AI work concerning the ability of computers to play chess, solve mathematical theorems and mimic all aspects of the human psyche. In his first book What Computers Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason (1972) he argued that computers would never be able to emulate human thought as he believed higher mental functions not to be rule-governed. Dreyfus’s other acclaimed writings include the NY Times bestseller All Things Shining (2011) which he wrote with Harvard philosopher Sean D. Kelly; Being-in-the-World (1991) and the 2001 essay series On the Internet. His work on Heidegger inspired the 2010 documentary Being in the World.

Plantinga Wins Templeton Prize

Philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga, who is Emeritus Professor at the University of Notre Dame, has been awarded the 2017 Templeton Prize. The award, founded by Christian businessman and philanthropist John Templeton, is given to individuals who have “made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” Previous winners include Mother Teresa, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Charles Taylor, Jean Vanier, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.

“I am honoured to receive the Templeton Prize,” Plantinga said. “The field of philosophy has transformed over the course of my career. If my work played a role in this transformation, I would be very pleased. I hope the news of the prize will encourage young philosophers, especially those who bring Christian and theistic perspectives to bear on their work, toward greater creativity, integrity and boldness.”

Hawking Recommends Leaving Earth Within Next 100 Years

Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking says humans will have to start colonising other planets soon. He believes that within the next 100 years the existence of humanity will be under treat due to climate change, asteroid impact, epidemics and population growth. The Earth may become uninhabitable. It is not the first time that Hawking has recommended leaving Earth, however, previously he thought a realistic time frame to be 1,000 years.

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