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News: August/September 2004

Hi, School Philosophy! • Oxford Welcomes Careful Thinkers • Holy Rock Tours America • Euclid’s Parallel Theorem Proved? — News reports by Sue Roberts in London and Lisa Sangoi in New York.

High School Philosophy

Most young Canadians and Americans have never taken a course in philosophy at their local high school. By tradition, philosophy courses are simply not offered at the high school level. However, the founding of the North American High School Philosophy Association brings new hope and opportunity to aspiring adolescent philosophers of North America. This association will unite teachers, students, administrators, and university professors from all over North America in an effort to initiate and support philosophical inquiry among high school students. The NAHSPA will sponsor training institutes for teachers interested in leading philosophy classes. One of the originators of the new association is Ken Knisely, the man who has brought philosophy to American television screens with his show No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed.

No Unexpected Parallels

Rachid Matta, a Lebanese mathematician and engineer, claims to have proven Euclid’s parallel theorem. Also known as the fifth postulate, it states that given any straight line and a point not on the line, there “exists one and only one straight line which passes” through that point and never intersects the first line, no matter how far the lines are extended. This theorem has remained unproved since Euclid wrote it in 300 BC, and many of the world’s greatest minds have considered it unprovable. The famous French mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss wrote that he thought the postulate was an impossibility. If verified, two branches of geometry, elliptical and hyperbolic geometry, would be discredited. The impact could be enormous. Matta states that the proof of the parallel theorem supports philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, who stated that Euclidean geometry was the “inevitable necessity of thought.” Euclid is known as the father of geometry, but very little is known about his life. It is commonly believed that he was educated at Plato’s Academy in Athens.

source: philosophynews.com

Roy Says Religion Rocks

The last issue of Philosophy Now reported on former Chief Justice Roy Moore’s refusal to remove a two and a half ton granite monument engraved with the Ten Commandments from the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. Both Chief Justice Moore and the monument have since been ousted from their posts. The monument’s present fate will now be determined by a group of veterans who will take the monument on a ‘God Bless America’ tour. The tour will commence in Tennessee. The goal is to drop the monument off at the U.S. Capitol, where Moore has asked Congress to display it prominently, said Wiley Drake, a pastor and member of the veterans group.


Marriage Ban Jam

Proponents of a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage met disappointment as the U.S. Senate voted 50 to 48 against a call to force a vote on the amendment, 12 short of the 60 needed to break the procedural logjam and 19 short of the two-thirds majority needed to move a constitutional amendment forward in the ratification process. This comes as a blow to the Bush administration and to conservative activists for whom this amendment has been a top priority. Some advocates of the amendment felt satisfied with the outcome, saying it was a necessary first step to bring the issue before Congress and the public. But Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said, “The constitutional amendment we are debating today strikes me as antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans. It usurps from the states a fundamental authority they have always possessed, and imposes a federal remedy for a problem that most states do not believe confronts them.”

source: NYT

A Taste of Oxford

From 3rd-5th September, Harris Manchester College in Oxford will be holding a free residential weekend specifically to give a small number of potential mature students a taste of academic life at Oxford. For example, participants will be asked to submit written work ahead of time, which they will subsequently discuss with college academics in tutorials. They will also attend subject-specific classes and lectures. This is part of a wider project to demonstrate to mature students that obstacles they might commonly face can be overcome and to encourage them to apply for a place on a degree course. Harris Manchester has the distinction of being the only Oxford college exclusively for mature students (defined as those aged 21 or over at the start of a degree course.)

The college is also running an essay competition for people aged 21 plus who don’t have a degree but would be interested in studying for one. The essay topic is “Changing the world: can one idea make a difference?” Entrants should write an essay (2000 words max.) on any idea that could make a real difference to societal well-being. The idea can be old or new and can originate in any area of the humanities or social sciences. The deadline is 31st August 2004 and the winner will receive £300.

Details of the access weekend and essay competition can be found in the ‘News’ section of the Harris Manchester website: www.hmc.ox.ac.uk.

Jacques Gets Degree This Time

French philosopher Jacques Derrida was recently awarded an honorary degree in literature by Queen Mary College, University of London. The college commented that “Professor Derrida’s work has changed the intellectual landscape of all the humanities in the second half of the twentieth century and into the new millenium. He looks very carefully at the actual language in which philosophy is written, and his work has had a profound effect on the study of literature. Further, his influence has extended to work in law, medical ethics, social sciences and history.”

Jacques Derrida’s output has been prolific with sixty published works since 1967. He was famously turned down for an honorary degree at Cambridge a few years ago after some English philosophers protested against the award.

Nature and Nurture

In the future, individuals who display impetuous bouts of aggression could possibly be treated with geneticallytailored drugs to improve their behaviour. At a recent conference on molecular mechanisms influencing aggressive behaviour, held by the Royal Society of Medicine, scientists discussed the role that genes play in aggression and examined the possibility of pharmacological intervention. A geneticist from Ohio State University said such drugs would not be handed out indiscriminately but could be used to target the type of individual described. It is not clear whether such proposed use would be with the consent of the individual concerned.

Earlier research reported by Kings College London and the University of Wisconsin in 2002 identified a gene called MAOA that acts on enzymes in the brain and that makes men more likely to be violent, though only if they also have had a bad childhood.

The interplay of nature and nurture in creating aggressive tendencies has also been the subject of recent research involving colonies of rhesus monkeys. Scientists from the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development observed that caring mothers seemed to reduce the risk of bad behaviour among animals genetically programmed to misbehave. Using monkeys with different versions of a gene called 5.HTT, which controls levels of the brain chemical serontin, they took half the monkeys away from their mothers shortly after they were born. The only monkeys which showed more aggressive behaviour as they grew older were those which had been removed from their mothers and which had a short version of their 5.HTT gene. The researchers found that 40% of monkeys carried the short version which is “linked to aggressive behaviour, including starting fights”.

Babies Born to Save Siblings?

In a landmark decision, the UK’s Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority is changing its rules to allow tissue-matching tests to be carried out on an embryo even when they will not directly benefit the future baby. Until now it has only been legal to screen in order to weed out serious genetic defects. From now, it is reported, parents will have the right to use ‘pre-implantation diagnosis’ – genetic tests on eight-cell IVF embryos. This means that embryos can be created specifically to provide stem-cells for an existing seriously-ill sibling. Doctors insist that strict controls and decisions on a case-by-case basis will be carried out. Dr Simon Fishel of the Centre for Assisted Reproduction estimates only “a couple of dozen” parents are likely to seek such help each year. The HFEA recommend it should be a ‘treatment of last resort’. The anti-abortion group Life describes the practice as “nothing more than a form of quality-control in early human beings and a commodification of human life”.

UK Govt Snubs Invertebrates

British gardeners will be relieved to know that contrary to early press reports, a draft animal welfare Bill published recently will not after all give legal rights to snails and slugs. The Bill is aimed at the prevention of cruelty to vertebrates only and then only to those kept by people as opposed to those in the wild. It lays down guidelines as to the amount of care and protection an animal should receive.

Children under 16 won’t be allowed to buy pets any more as Ministers believe they are “not mature enough to be responsible for the duty of care needed to protect pets”. This may be confusing to parents of a teenage daughter, who could legally choose to have an abortion without their knowledge but who, if the Bill is passed, won’t be legally trusted to win a goldfish at a funfair!

Stuart Hampshire

The philosopher Sir Stuart Hampshire, has died aged 89. He was one of the antirationalist Oxford thinkers who gave a new direction to moral and political thought in the post-war era. Stuart Hampshire was born on October 1, 1914, and was educated at Repton and at Balliol College, Oxford, from which he graduated with a First in Greats in 1936. In 1940 he enlisted in the army, but due to his lack of physical aptitude was soon transferred to a position in army intelligence. His encounters as interrogator with Nazi officers at the end of the war, led to his insistence on the reality of evil. From 1947 through 1960, Hampshire lectured in philosophy at University College, London , was a fellow of New College, Oxford, and resident fellow of All Souls. His book Spinoza published in 1951 is still widely considered the best introduction to that philosopher. His book Thought and Action has also attracted much attention. Although he considered most continental philosophy vulgar and fraudulent, Hampshire was much influenced by Martin Heidegger. He insisted, in a very Heideggerian way, that philosophy of mind, “has been distorted by philosophers when they think of persons only as passive observers and not as self-willed agents.” In his subsequent books, Hampshire sought to shift moral philosophy from its focus on the logical properties of moral statements to what he considered the crucial question of ‘moral problems as they present themselves to us as practical agents.’

Hampshire considered his work as warden of Wadham College, Oxford from 1970 to 1984, to be one of his most significant achievements. He revived the fortunes of the once run down college. Hampshire also went on to be a professor of philosophy at Princeton. He first married, in 1961, Renée Ayer, the former wife of the philosopher A J Ayer. She died in 1980, and in 1985, he married Nancy Cartwright, Professor of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the LSE.

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