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News: November/December 2005

University renamed after Kant • Philos Join ID Trial • Sartre Birthday Party • Odysseus’ Home Island Found • Ontology Hits Big Time — News reports by Sue Roberts

Kant University

Summer 2005 saw the renaming of the Alberta University in Kaliningrad, as the Immanuel Kant University. The occasion marked the 750th anniversary of the city (formerly Königsberg) and was attended by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder at the invitation of President Putin. After unveiling a memorial plaque at the University, Schröder accompanied Vladimir Putin to place wreaths at Kant’s tomb in the city’s cathedral.

Schröder said that they should try to emulate Kant’s aim of defending the dignity of the individual and credited him with developing the ideal of a modern and humane form of government.

Odysseus’ Home Island Found?

Holidays ... a time to dream; a time to reflect. For Robert Bittlestone, a management consultant, the result of musing while on holiday in 1997 was a hunch that a peninsula on the western side of the island of Cephalonia was once a separate island, conceivably home to Homer’s legendary Odysseus.

Homer’s epic poems ‘The Odyssey’ and ‘The Iliad’ are the oldest books in Western literature. His accounts of the events surrounding the Trojan Wars around 1200 BC were a standard part of education in the ancient world, greatly influencing the intellectual and cultural growth of Greece and inspiring Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. Until now it has been generally assumed that the island home to which Odysseus returns after his travels – Ithaca – must have referred to modern-day Ithaki, to the east of Cephalonia. But Ithaki is small and barren, with few traces of Bronze Age occupation, making it an unlikely location for the wealthy island kingdom described by Homer. This has led most scholars until now to conclude that Homer’s geography was shaky.

Since his hunch, Bittlestone has devoted much time to proving that Paliki, a small island just off the western coast of Cephalonia, became joined to it as a result of rock fall and land-slides. Computer analysis of geological, archaeological and literary data; advanced satellite imagery and 3D global visualisation techniques, as well as field trips have uncovered an impressive trail leading to Cephalonia. He has been supported in his search by James Diggle, professor of Greek at Cambridge University and John Underhill, professor of stratiography at the University of Edinburgh who say they have no evidence that contradicts Mr Bittlestone’s claims. The result of collaboration between the three has led to the recent publication of Odysseus Unbound: The Search for Homer’s Ithaca.

Ask a Philosopher!

A group of professional philosophers have just launched a new service on the internet. The nature of the service is neatly summed up by the name of their website: ‘AskPhilosophers’ (askphilosophers.org). The free service invites members of the public to post their questions at the website; one of the philosophers on the team may then choose to answer the question. Question and answer are then be displayed on the website. The team of philosophers includes some well-known thinkers, such as Simon Blackburn, Roger Crisp, Peter van Inwagen and Gabriel Segal.

Another free web-service called, ‘Ask a Philosopher’ (http://go.to/ask-a-philosopher), has been operating since 1999, and is run by Geoffrey Klempner.

Immaculate Non-Conception

British pro-life groups may be divided over a recent development that has made it possible for human embryos to be created without using sperm. A team from Edinburgh University, headed by Dr Paul De Sousa, revealed at a meeting of the British Association in Dublin that they have found a way to grow an embryo by ‘tricking’ an egg into dividing, with a shock of electricity, rather than by the normal process of fertilisation.

The embryos, called blastocysts, consist of about 50 cells each and can be used as a source of stem cells which can be programmed to grow into the various types of cell in the human body, though this has not yet been done successfully in humans as it has in non-human primates. It is reported that the embryos are grown by a process known as parthogenensis, which translates from Greek as ‘virgin birth’. The eggs used are taken with consent from women who have been sterilised; they retain a full set of DNA from the donor. According to Dr Da Sousa there is no intention to use the embryos to create pregnancies.

Feds to Block Oregon Suicide Bids

The status of a law in Oregon that allows doctor-assisted suicide in the case of a terminally-ill patient was in the news recently when the USA’s new Supreme Court chief justice defended the right of the federal government to block euthanasia. Oregon is the only state to allow euthanasia following a referendum in 1997. The Supreme Court ruled then that the law did not give the dying a right to such assisted suicide but the door was left open to the state to use its discretion. Now it appears that door is being firmly closed.

Coming Soon to a Mall Near You

Meanwhile, Dignitas, the Swiss clinic that carries out assisted suicide, has opened a branch in Hanover, Germany. In spite of vociferous opposition from politicians, Church leaders and doctors, Dignitas insists that under European Union law it has the right to offer its services within the EU. The founder, Ludwig Minelli, stated that the office had been opened in response to demand from German citizens. Critics, however, accused Dignitas of profiting from people who are at a low ebb; not only as a result of terminal illness but in some cases as a result of mental illness.

Literal-Minded Complaint

A poster of a man and child beneath the caption “Miracles, Healing, Faith”, published by the Penial Pentecostal Church in Brentwood, Essex, led critics to lodge a complaint with the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). This alleged that the Church was claiming to cure medical conditions without scientific proof and “preyed on the credulity of vulnerable people.”

Michael Reid, head of the Church, denied that the poster specifically referred to cures or medical conditions, emphasizing that the words “miracle, healing and faith” were a statement of its belief in the Christian Gospel. Finding in their favour the ASA stated “We consider that most people in the UK were aware of Christian beliefs and would understand that the poster referred to spiritual, not physical, miracles and healing.”

An Evolving Controversy

Educators across America have been rivetted by an ‘intelligent design versus evolution’ court case in Harrisburg, in Pennsylvania – and several philosophers have become involved in the controversy. One philosophy professor, Barbara Forrest from the Southeastern Louisiana University, has been a pivotal figure in the trial.

Professor Forrest, a researcher of the history of ‘intelligent design’ and author of the book Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, has been called as an expert witness in the case between the Dover School Board, near Harrisburg, and eleven parents. The dispute arose when the school board instructed teachers to read disclaimer to pupils in biology classes before teaching them about the theory of evolution. The disclaimer states “the theory (of evolution) is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence.” It continues with the advice that “if pupils wish to investigate the the alternative theory of ‘intelligent design’ they should read a book called Of Pandas & People.” The parents object to this statement and are backed by groups supporting the separation of church and state. The school board maintains that ‘intelligent design’ is science, not religion. It is a recent theory that proposes that the ‘irreducible complexity’ of present-day organisms means that they couldn’t have evolved by random mutations and must therefore have been the work of an intelligent entity. It has overtaken ‘creationism’ which specifically attributed such design to God. However, the parents, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, are suing to demand the abolition of the disclaimer. Step forward Professor Forrest! Although lawyers for the defence have objected to her credentials, saying she has no background in science, the judge has allowed her to testify. Her evidence has pointed to changes made to the draft versions of the book Of Pandas & People. She claims that, following a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 which barred the teaching of ‘creation science’ in public schools, the book’s authors simply replaced 250 references to ‘creationism’ and the ‘creator’ in the text with the words ‘intelligent design’ and ‘intelligent designer’. A rose by any other name..?

Other philosophers to take an interest in the case include Daniel Dennett, wo has written a widely-quoted opinion piece in the New York Times.

Let Me Through, I’m an Ontologist!

An impressive $18.8 million award has been made by the US National Institute of Health to enable the development of a National Center for Biomedical Ontology. In philosophy, ontology is the study of what things exist. The relevance here is that computers and clinicians are sometimes unable to collate different sorts of medical information effectively, as different branches of medicine use different – but sometimes overlapping – concepts.

At the core of the new project will be the University of Buffalo, NY, from where the philosopher Barry Smith will co-ordinate the Center’s nationwide effort to establish and disseminate good practices in ontology. With 30 years experience in ontology, Prof Smith will lead scientists from several U.S. institutions toward the goal of designing and implementing a new generation of ontological theories and computer systems that will will help researchers to share, compare and analyse data gathered from large biomedical experiments.

Socratic Irony

In March the Philosophy Department at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania moved to a new address: Third Floor, Hemlock Hall, Mansfield University. The Chair of Philosophy, Professor Robert Timko, says he is unsure whether this is irony or an indication of the future.

Sartre’s Birthday Cake

Dr Timothy J. Madigan, a US Editor of Philosophy Now, reports: “This cake was part of our all-day Sartre celebration on his 100th birthday, June 21st 2005. We held it at a bookstore in Honeoye Falls, NY run by my friend Nick Di Chario (The Write Book and News), and David White brought his summer Philosophy of Education course for the festivities. A good time was had by all.” So was the cake actually eaten? “We ate the bits around his photo but none of us had the heart to plunge a knife into his face. So I gave what was left of the cake to David White, who served it up to his students the next day – apparently they had no qualms about butchering J.P.”

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