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News: December 2000 / January 2001

Charles Hartshorne dies • Dutch legalise euthanasia • Amnesty protests about death row toy • Mayor says “come round for some philosophy!”

Charles Hartshorne

Charles Hartshorne has died in Austin, Texas, at the great age of 103. Dr Hartshorne was a prolific writer, publishing his last work when he was 98 years old.

The main thrust of his work throughout his life was to promote ‘process theology’. The theory was based on the ‘process philosophy’ of Alfred North Whitehead, which holds that basic reality is not substance but an unremitting process of change. Hartshorne developed Whitehead’s theory in a way which led to a radically new view of God’s essential nature. Instead of God being an unchanging, all-powerful, all-knowing deity, process theology claims that God’s relationship to mankind is one of constant change in a responsive, empathic manner. Randall Stipers, professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, attributed to Hartshorne “an enormous amount of creative work in helping people rethink the nature of the divine and the relationship between the divine and the known world.”

Dr Hartshorne had previously proved to his satisfaction the existence of God. Using mathematics to work through the logic he claimed to have found sixteen separate proofs of God’s existence.

Another passion in his life was ornithology. In 1973 he wrote Born to Sing, a book which proposed that some bird species had evolved the ability to appreciate melody aesthetically and sing for the pleasure of it.

Dutch legalise euthanasia

On 28th November Holland became the first country in the world to legalise euthanasia, following a 104-40 vote in the Dutch parliament. Euthanasia has been practised unofficially for years in Holland, though many doctors have been reluctant to become involved for fear of prosecution if family or hospital colleagues filed a complaint. Even so, Dutch euthanasia organisations recorded over 2000 cases last year of patients being helped by doctors to die. Now euthanasia has been legalised it is predicted that there will be a rapid rise in the number of cases as fear of prosecution is removed. The change has not been universally welcomed; Calvinist churches and hospice organisations have expressed great concern about the possible consequences. Opponents of the bill in parliament fear pressure may be put on patients by their families. However, the new freedom will be accompanied by very strict guidelines. Adult patients will be required by law to make a voluntary and carefully considered request to end their lives. They will need to be fully advised on their medical situation and briefed on the details of euthanasia in the presence of a doctor. A second consultant’s opinion on the patient’s condition must be sought and there must be a consensus that no reasonable alternative exists and that the patient would otherwise face a future of “unremitting and unbearable suffering.” If euthanasia is carried out the patient’s life must be ended in a “medically appropriate” way.

Philosophy Now contributor

Gordon Giles, Succentor of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, and a frequent Philosophy Now contributor, has reached the finals of the UK’s Preacher of the Year competition. Good luck Gordon!

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Near-death experiences have been the focus of a scientific study to be published soon in the medical journal Resuscitation. The year-long study, the first of its kind, has been undertaken by London-based clinical neuropsychiatrist Dr Peter Fenwick and Dr Sam Parnia, a clinical researcher from Southampton. Sixty-three patients who had suffered cardiac arrest and been pronounced clinically dead, but then survived were asked to recall their experiences. Of these patients fifty-six had no recollections, and three more were screened out by the criteria known as the Grayson scale used for assessing near-death experiences. The remaining four patients recalled experiences including heightened perception, bright lights, awareness of other ‘beings’, and a sense of joy and peace, all at a stage where, according to Dr Parnia, the brain shouldn’t have been able to sustain lucid processes or allow them to form lasting memories. This research will fuel debate over the relationship between mind and brain, and in particular over whether the former can in fact continue without the latter. The findings were welcomed by representatives of the Church of England Doctrine Commission as undermining materialism and supporting religious faith in a ‘life after death’. Sceptics have claimed that near-death experiences are probably the result of brain function collapse caused by lack of oxygen, but Fenwick and Parnia say that in this study no patients were known to have low oxygen levels. They also dismissed the possibility that unusual combinations of drugs might be responsible for the experiences, since the resuscitation procedure at the hospital concerned was the same for each patient. Another possible cause of near-death experiences is proposed by Christopher French, psychologist at Goldsmith’s College, London, who thinks that the brain may simply be trying to deal with a highly traumatic event.

Young Philosophers’ Newsletter

The American Philosophical Association has announced the creation of a national newsletter for young people involved in philosophy. The pilot issue, expected to be published in early 2001 will focus on children’s rights and will feature classroom discussions, essays, stories and pictures from schools all over the United States. For more information please contact Jana Mohr Lone at jmohrlone@compuserve.com.

Deadly Games

The toy industry has scaled the greatest height of bad taste ever: a miniature electric chair. Strapped into it is a six inch plastic doll named Death Row Marv, based on a comic book character who murdered his girlfriend’s killer. As the electricity is applied, his eyes start glowing and his body convulses, and a voice chip allows him to laugh and to taunt his executioners: “That all you got, pansies?” Death Row Marv has proven to be extremely popular in the United States with demand so great that there are waiting lists across the country. The toy, intended for children “13 and up”, has been criticised by Amnesty International as well as the National Organisation of Parents of Murdered Children.

The Pope and the Philosopher

On the occasion of the first international congress on the philosophy of Maurice Blondel (1861-1949) held in Italy, Pope John Paul II praised Blondel’s thought for bridging the divide between faith and reason. The French thinker tried to combine religious belief with a rational philosophical approach. Reflecting on the “necessity to study philosophy as a ‘preparation for faith’”, the Pope referred to Blondel’s philosophy as having its foundations in “the acute perception of the drama of the separation of faith and reason and the intrepid determination to overcome this separation, which is contrary to the nature of things.”

Controversy over Rudolf Steiner Education

A public elementary school in Sacramento has come under attack in a wave of criticism directed against Waldorf schools, of which a considerable number exist in Northern California. Some secular humanists and Christian conservatives in the area have formed an unusual alliance called People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools. PLANS claims that publicly-funded Waldorf schools such as Sacramento’s John Morse Magnet School violate the constitutional guarantee of the separation of church and state, and they have filed a lawsuit against the Sacramento school district on those grounds. The controversy centres on the founder of the Waldorf schools, Rudolf Steiner (1861- 1925), a pioneering educationalist who also developed a spiritual philosophy he called anthroposophy, which combines a number of religious and philosophical ideas. PLANS believe that Waldorf schools may promote Steiner’s thought generally, including distinctly religious elements. Waldorf school supporters, however, deny that there is any religious indoctrination or worship happening in the classroom, and say that the schools simply follow Steiner’s educational theories. These include the ideal of a holistic education aiming to develop a wide spectrum of human abilities, especially the imagination and artistic skills. The school therefore use teaching materials such as faceless dolls and music, as well as nature tables with rocks and seashells. Critics have apparently claimed that the nature tables are altars for sun worship. The lawsuit is scheduled for trial in spring 2001.

Insurance Companies Seek a Safer Bet

In November the British Government responded to lobbying from the insurance industry, by agreeing that insurers may refuse cover or charge higher premiums to people identified by genetic testing as being likely to develop an hereditary disease. This makes Britain the first country to permit this particular commercial application of gene technology. Insurance companies will not require applicants to take gene tests, but will ask them whether they have had a tests in the past and if so what the results were. Critics fear that people may be deterred from taking such genetic tests for fear of having to pay higher insurance premiums. Current testing is for Huntington’s disease, but tests for Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer and other conditions are expected soon.

Brown Studies

The idiosyncratic mayor of Oakland, California, Jerry ‘Moonbeam’ Brown, has attempted to boost the level of intellectual debate in his city by inviting the public to philosophy seminars in his own home. He invited a small group of intellectuals including the author Ivan Illich to stay in his loft-style apartment near the waterfront, asking them to conduct discussions and give public talks there on a wide variety of topics. Brown says he wants to investigate the meaning of citizenship, globalization and the apparent loss of grass-roots civic involvement.

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