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News: Winter 1998/99

Human rights • Pope’s verdict on philosophy • Genes and things • Sophie’s musical • Philosopher canonised • Thought sport

Philosophical Olympics

The 6th International Philosophical Olympiad has been held in Brasov, Rumania with twenty student participants from high schools in Poland, Turkey, Germany, Ukraine and Albania as well as the host country. The students had qualified in national rounds, with the exception of those from Germany and Albania. Teams from Ukraine and Albania were entering for the first time. The competition involved writing an essay within four hours, discussing a quotation from Russell, Montaigne, Schopenhauer or Goethe. This year’s winner was a Polish pupil from Gdansk. The 1999 Philosophical Olympiad will be held in Budapest, and for the first time a US team will be taking part. (Further info. from: Dr Gerd Gerhardt, Dompfaffenweg 20, D-49479, Ibbenburen, Germany. Tel/Fax +49- 5451-84486)

Cloning People

After almost a year of inquiring into the ethics of cloning, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and the Human Genetics Advisory Commission (HGAC) published their findings in December 1998. Though rigorously opposing the cloning of human beings as a means of reproduction, they agreed to allow research into the cloning of human material for medical purposes. It is hoped that it will lead to the discovery of a technique to combat diseases such as Parkinson’s. Even the possibility of recreating body parts has become conceivable: Cells could be removed from new-born babies, cloned and developed into stem cells (cells holding the potential to become any part of the body), which could be stored in case they would be needed later in life.

“One’s mission in life is to push towards truth and not be afraid. I had everybody against me a few years ago on assisted pregnancies for postmenopausal women, but then people agreed.” Such is the optimism of Severino Antinori, the controversial Italian embryologist, whose in vitro fertilisation (IVF) techniques enabled a 62-year-old woman to give birth in 1994. Among the voices raised against this record-breaking feat was that of the Vatican which declared the act to be “horrible and grotesque.”

Now Antorini, professor of assisted reproduction at Chieti University, has set his sights on creating the world’s first human clone, believing that the technology of cloning is a logical extension of IVF. Cloning is the result of nuclear transfer when DNA from a donor cell is inserted into an egg cell that has been stripped of its own genetic material. Scientists at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh were the first to be successful at creating the clone of an adult mammalian cell. – Result: Dolly the sheep. Since then rhesus monkeys have been cloned at the Oregon Regional Primate Center and mice have been cloned by experts at the University of Hawaii. An American biotechnology company recently disclosed having introduced the nucleus of a human cell into a cow egg three years ago. The cow-human embryo survived for a number of days.

Many experts believe that the risks have not yet been reduced to an acceptable level to attempt human cloning. Steps to declare such practices illegal are under way in the USA and in Europe, while in Britain the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority intends to block any moves to carry out this type of work.

The idea of cloning human beings naturally involves a host of diverse problems. Antorini recognises that the pressure to forge ahead with the necessary research is likely to be consumer-led by infertile couples. However, he says of the man unable to produce sperm “If he can not reproduce himself why should he not reproduce his genes in this way – this is one of the few cases where it is acceptable to clone.”

There are other advocates of human cloning : Richard Seed, an American physicist, who is attempting to establish a cloning clinic; the Raelian religious cult, which states that mankind resulted from the cloning of aliens; Randolfe Wicker, who founded the “Clone Rights United Front” in July 1997 with the declared aim of “defending people’s reproductive rights.” His argument: “I realise my clone would be my identical twin, and my identical twin has a right to be born.”

Faith and Reason: A Match made in Heaven?

“Faith and Reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth,” Pope John Paul II recently declared in his thirteenth encyclical on the eve of the 20th anniversary of his election.

Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) is a continuation of his 1993 encyclical in which he pointed to a number of moral truths which he believed forgotten or misunderstood.

This new 36,000 word authoritative letter to the world’s Roman Catholics is said to have been written to give people renewed confidence in a world where they have lost direction as they “stumble through life to the very edge of the abyss without knowing where they are going.” He is concerned especially for young people whom he believes have been left with no real points of reference in a world where all is relative.

God himself has “placed in the human heart the desire to know the truth,” i.e. know God, by which “men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” This understanding of ourselves and the hope for “self-realisation” urge us to seek “universal elements of knowledge” to make our lives meaningful beyond the level of “deadening routine”. Knowledge conferred by faith and knowledge conferred by reason are seen as forming a unity, a “circle”, both sharing into the same universal truth. It is in revelation that philosophy and theology find their “point of contact and comparison”. The Pope explains that some philosophies are unsuited to discover truth and are therefore by (his) definition essentially un-philosopbical: “A philosophy denying the possibility of an ultimate and overarching meaning would not be only ill-adapted to its task, but false.” The encyclical quotes the positive examples of thinkers such as St. Anselm, Kierkegaard, and, surprisingly, even Galileo, who is said to have “declared explicitly that the two truths,of faith and science can never contradict each other.”

Philosopher turned Saint

Edith Stein (1891-1942), German phenomenologist and former assistant to Edmund Husserl, was declared a saint in October 1998. Stein, a Jewish thinker who converted to Catholocism, died in Auschwitz for her philosophical and religious activity and outspokeness.

Human Rights Birthday

The United Nations Association held a programme of events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN on 10th December 1948. Emphasising that the Declaration applies to all humans, UN High Commissioner Mary Robinson set the ball rolling with a call for politics, commerce, sustainable trade, social and personal development to be shaped with regard to human rights.

A National Commemoration of the Declaration was held at Westminster Abbey on the day of the anniversary. It was attended by the Princess Royal. Speakers included the exiled Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka.

The following day a group of young people from across the UK gathered at the Commonwealth Institute in London to participate in an all-day ‘role play’ of the UN Commission, adopting the stance of individual countries and human rights groups.

Sophie’s World…The Musical! …And the CD-Rom!

The Ettling Castle Festival in Germany was the setting for the World Premier of a musical based on Jostein Gaarder’s philosophical blockbuster Sophie’s World. this summer. Gaarder had given a completely free rein to the Norwegian producers, playwright Oystein Wilk and composer Gislen Kverndokk. He was reported to be very happy with his compatriots’ efforts.

The CD-ROM version of Sophie’s World has won this year’s EMMA Award, given to the best multimedia product by EMMA International of the UK. Since its launch in March 1997 the CD has sold 25,000 copies… all of which must have made Gaarder even happier!

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