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News: March/April 2003

Computer ‘Brutus’ programmed for prose • Journalist tells cult: come clean on clone claim • American philos vote on war • Alabama governor mandates “ethics classes”

APA votes on anti-war resolution

At the recent meeting in Philadelphia of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, members elected to hold a mail ballot on the following resolution:

“Members of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association express our serious doubts about the morality, legality and prudence of a war against Iraq led by the United States.

Both just war theory and international law say that states may resort to war only in self-defence. Iraq has not attacked the United States, and claims that it is about to do so are not credible. Even in the absence of imminent threat, the United States claims a preemptive justification for war in this case. This claim stretches the meaning of preemption beyond reasonable bounds and sets a dangerous precedent which other states may feel free to follow.

A war waged by the United States against Iraq will be costly in lives, both Iraqi and American, and probably those of other nations. It will create disorder leading to more suffering of innocent people in the long term, both within Iraq and elsewhere. It will cost American taxpayers many billions of dollars that would better be used for humane purposes at home and abroad.”

Dr William Mann, secretary treasurer of the Eastern Division, says that the votes will be counted by late February.

British Philosophical Association

The ‘professionalisation’ of philosophy in Britain takes another step with an ambitious new organisation for professional philosophers to be launched later this year. The British Philosophical Association, which will first meet officially in Belfast this July, is clearly inspired partly by the American Philosophical Association, which recently celebrated its centenary. The BPA’s Inaugural Conference is slated for an afternoon late in October 2003 in London. Dr Robin Cameron of Aberdeen told Philosophy Now that the BPA “.. will seek to promote within the wider community a better understanding of philosophy and what it has to offer, perhaps in co-operation with other bodies. Naturally, it will have an interest in how the teaching of philosophy in schools and colleges develops.” Membership of the new organisation is restricted to philosophers qualified to teach at university level, as well as to departments and learned societies. A recruiting drive will be held this spring. More info may be found at the National Committee for Philosophy’s website at http://www.ncp.ac.uk. That site will have a link to the BPA’s own website as soon as it has one.

Cloned cats have quirks

One year after the birth of the first cloned household pet, a female calico cat named CC (for Carbon Copy), the feline has demonstrated considerable differences from her genetic mother in temperament as well as appearance. CC’s creation at the Texas A & M University was funded by financier John Sperling who set up a company, Genetic Savings & Clone, to duplicate muchloved pets on a commercial basis.

However, GSC appears to have accepted that it is unethical to lead customers to expect an exact replica of good old Felix. Their sales pitch now is that cloning could reproduce what a pet-owner considers to be exceptional genes, especially from an animal that has been spayed, neutered or which has unknown parentage.

Shortly before we went to press it was announced that the world’s first cloned animal, Dolly the Sheep, had died aged five. The initial awe at the achievement of Dolly’s birth was later clouded by reports that she was suffering from arthritus at an unnaturally young age, but this isn’t thought to be connected with the cause of her demise. Mint sauce, anyone?

Lab-grown meat a step nearer

Vegetarians were faced by the prospect of a new ethical challenge recently when a NASA-funded team led by Morris Benjaminson, at Touro College in New York City, took the first steps toward what may culminate in ‘lab meat’ on your dinner menu. The aim of the project is enable astronauts on long voyages to grow their own meat. The method initially involves taking muscle tissue from goldfish and cultivating it in a cell-culture fluid.

But to produce a substantial amount of meat is difficult without a blood supply to pump nutrients into the cell mass. For this reason, more research is required, including finding effective ways to ‘exercise’ the meat to provide realistic texture and simulate the blood flow. Also for blood-flow reasons, it may prove easier to grow the meat in thin films rather than as big juicy steaks.

Vegeterians, then, will certainly have to decide whether or not such meats are ethically acceptable – since no animal is being slaughtered or held captive to produce the meat. Spokesmen at NASA, however, were quick to emphasise that vegetarian space journeys are more than acceptable, and any essential amino acids that would come from meat can also come from pills.

Australian suicide doctor invents new machine

Philip Nitschke, head of the assisted suicide group Exit Australia, has unleashed a new suicide machine in response to critics claiming his ‘drawstring’ suffocation bag was undignified. The new device will pump carbon monoxide through a nasal breathing tube, but it can also be converted to produce therapeutic oxygen. Nitschke hopes that this dual function will make the machine more difficult to ban. “We’ll be able to say to people, ‘Don’t add these substances to it, or it will be fatal,’ and the rest is up to them,” said Nitschke. Voluntary euthanasia was briefly legalized in Australia’s Northern Territories in 1997, but the law was repealed eight months later.

Suicide law may haunt wife and television crew

Ronald Crew, 74, wanted to die, but he couldn’t do it by himself. The terminally ill British man was in the final stages of motor neurone disease and sought suicide assistance from Dignitas, an organization in Zurich that has logged 150 suicides thus far.

Crew agreed to having his farewell journey filmed by an ITV crew as part of a documentary. However, Crew’s death via a fatal dose of barbiturates, even though it took place in Switzerland, may still have violated UK law. Although suicide is no longer a crime in Britain, the Suicide Act of 1961 prohibits the aiding, abetting or counselling of those seeking suicide. Crew relied on his wife and on the film crew for assistance in making the trip and they may, therefore, be held accountable for committing a crime. Mrs Crew has been campaigning since to have this law changed in Britain. (see assisted suicide debate starting on p.10)

Alabama governor mandates “ethics pledges”

Governor of Alabama Bob Riley, in his first official act as governor, required that his cabinet appointees sign ethics pledges. He then requested that they attend a class given by the state Ethics Commission. Republican Mr Riley claimed that the administration of Gov. Donald Siegelman, his Democratic predecessor, lacked ethics. Governor Riley signed the pledge as well.

Whatever Happened to the Raelians’ Cloned Baby?

American journalist Michael Guillen revealed recently that his investigation into the Raelian cult’s claim that one of its followers had given birth to the world’s first human clone has yielded no positive leads. Independent scientists have been unable to gain access to the family of ‘Eve’, who is said to be an exact genetic copy of her mother.

The cloning claim was made to an astonished world by Brigitte Foisselier, a French scientist at the company Clonaid at the end of 2002. According to Foisselier, ten mothers had begun pregnancies with cloned embryos, five of which had “spontaneously terminated” and five had developed successfully; these would all be born by the end of January. She also claimed that thousands of desperate applicants were clamouring to be given treatment.

The scientific community was highly sceptical of these claims, particularly as the failure rate in animal cloning has been very high with the survivors having serious physical defects in many cases.

While it is recognised as a possibility that Clonaid might have pulled off a truly remarkable feat, verification, as Guillen has discovered, has simply not happened. Clonaid was founded in the Bahamas in 1997 by Claude Vorilhon, leader of the Raelian sect. Previously an aspiring pop singer and racing-car journalist, Vorilhon claims to have been approached in 1973 by aliens who convinced him that humans were created 25,000 years ago in a laboratory by advanced beings who had mastered genetics and cell-biology. This latest episode will hardly have increased Clonaid’s credibility.

Computer ‘Brutus’ programmed to write short stories

Brutus is an excellent writer of short stories. And why not? He’s got language, syntax, plot devices – plenty of ammo to write his most recent piece entitled Betrayal. Strangely, literary experts have had great difficulty telling Brutus’ short stories, which include such catchy phrases as “molten blood,” from those of distinguished human authors – precisely the criterion by which artificial intelligence pioneer Alan Turing would have judged Brutus to be a ‘thinking thing’. The £1 billion supercomputer was programmed by professor of logic Selmer Bringsjord at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. Brutus produced Betrayal for a contest in which the computer’s essay was slipped in with three other expert essays and published on the Internet. Readers asked to identify which piece was written by an inanimate object were left checking their circuitry: only 25% of 4,000 voters guessed correctly.

“Brutus One is only the first version of the program,” Bringsjord said of the machine, which took him seven years to complete in the Rensselaer mind and machine laboratory. “Brutus is a good imitator of styles that we feed into it, but so far it can produce only 500-word stories written from a male point of view about betrayal in a university setting.”

Prior to Brutus, computers had been programmed to write rhymes and remedial fiction, but it was easily identifiable as the work of a machine.

2002 non-academic award

Matthew McCormick and A. Minh Nguyen have been honoured by the Rockefeller Foundation as having written the best unpublished articlelength work in philosophy by nonacademically affiliated philosophers. The award dates back to 1984, and the winners receive $1000. Dr McCormick’s work is entitled ‘Another Look at Kant’s Subjective Deduction’, and Dr Nguyen’s ‘Davidson on First-Person Authority’. Both will be published in The Journal of Value Inquiry.

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