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News: May/June 2006

Peter Strawson dies • 14th Philosophy Olympics • Pope endorses erotic love • Philosophy President not Philosopher King — News reports by Sue Roberts in London and John Ruddy in New York

President Lenk

The German philosopher Hans Lenk was recently elected to the prestigious post of President of the International Institute of Philosophy. Lenk, who won a gold medal for rowing at the 1960 Rome Olympics, is now a philosophy professor at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany. There will be an article by President Lenk in the next issue.

Voltaire Still Stirring Up Trouble

Late last year, as an international crisis brewed over Danish cartoons, Muslims raised a furore in the sleepy Alpine town of Saint-Genis-Pouilly over Voltaire’s play ‘Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet.’ The 18th Century philosophe and satirist uses the founder of Islam to parody various forms of religious overzealousness and intolerance. The production quickly stirred up passions that echoed the reaction to the cartoons.

“This play constitutes an insult to the entire Muslim community,” said a letter to the mayor of Saint-Genis-Pouilly from a local Muslim café owner, demanding that the performance be cancelled. Instead the mayor arranged for police reinforcements to protect the theatre and the reading went ahead. During the performance, several dozen people rioted outside and youths set fire to a car and some garbage cans. The mayor’s only reaction was to say it was “the most excitement we’ve ever had down here.”

An exhibition dedicated to Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers recently opened at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. It features a police file started in 1748 on Voltaire, highlighting efforts by authorities to muzzle him. The exhibition attempts to apply the ideas of Enlighten-ment thinkers to modern controversies. Voltaire is famous for, among other things, saying “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Let’s All Join In

A Hindu group in India is offering a reward to anyone who beheads the artist M.F. Hussain, who produces edgy reinterpretations of Hindu deities. “Those who are endangering our religion and nation should be eliminated for everyone’s good,” said Ashok Pandey, president of the Hindu Personal Law Board. “Anyone who kills Hussain… the Danish cartoonist, and those in the German company printing pictures of Ram and Krishna on tissue paper…will be given (the reward) in cash... Peace will not prevail on Earth unless such people are eliminated.” Pandey commented that Hussain was as guilty of degrading Hindu deities as the Danish cartoonists were of defiling the Prophet Muhammad. A senior advocate at the Lucknow High Court said that the comments were “just an attempt to gain cheap publicity.”

Darwin Still Big in Parts of USA

Darwin is also still causing controversy. An exhibition in the American Museum of Natural History claims to be the most comprehensive show ever to focus on Darwin and his theory. With plenty of artifacts, specimens, letters, manuscripts and even live animals, the exhibit covers over 6000 square feet. The aim is to trace Darwin’s logic in understanding life’s origins. Unsurprisingly, ‘Darwin’ – $3m to present and 3 years to assemble – failed to find a corporate sponsor, due to notorious disputes over the teaching of evolution in American schools.

Instinct 1, Logic 0

What is really going on in our heads when we leap into the unknown? When we invest money, change jobs, apply to university? A new brain-imaging study finds that the more uncertain you feel about a situation, the more likely it is that emotion and gut instinct, not logic, will rule. Even ordering an unusual entrée will summon the centre of the brain inked with handling emotions. This is a different region from the centre used when confronting known risks, like the 50/50 chance of a coin toss.

Prof. Colin Camerer’s team, from California Institute of Technology and the University of Iowa, presented two kinds of gambling games to subjects. One had known risks, the other had unknown risks. It would come as no surprise that subjects preferred decisions where risk was known. However, unknown vs. known risk-decisions activated different areas of the brain. When subjects were truly uncertain, their amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) were active. The study suggests that these two areas work together when someone is confronted with a wildcard situation. The amygdala is associated with pleasure, vigilance, and fear responses (ie ‘fight or flight’ instincts). The OFC is thought to assimilate emotional and cognitive information. In the unknown risk condition, the amygdala produces a ‘warning’ message for the OFC to process.

Patients with damage to their OFC were also tested. They played very differently from the other subjects, as these patients seemed to treat known vs unknown risk conditions the same. Since they could not make such risk differentiations, it is no coincidence that those same patients had also made relatively reckless financial and personal choices.

Philosophy Olympiad in Italy

The XIV International Philosophy Olympiad is being hosted by Italy in May, and will last six days. Students from a number of countries will take part in essay writing contests on philosophical themes. The essays will be written at an early stage and over the next two days, while the essays are being evaluated, students will be taken to visit places of historical and cultural interest, returning for the closing ceremony on the fifth day before departing on the sixth.

Since the first International Philosophy Olympiad took place in Bulgaria in 1993 this essay-writing marathon has grown to encompass high-school students from almost 20 countries. Its International Organising Committee is based at Sofia University and headed by Prof. Ivan Kolev. It seems that no contestants from the UK have taken part so far . Having taken part from 1999, the USA does not seem to continue to be involved after hosting the Olympiad in Philadelphia in 2001.

Spinoza Award

The International Spinoza Lens Award has been given to a female academic for the first time since its inception. Named after the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), who earned his living as a lens-grinder, the award specifically recognises commitment to furthering public debate on ethical issues (Spinoza’s most famous book is Ethics). Donna Dickenson, Professor of Medical Ethics & Humanities, has received this prestigious award in recognition of her direct influence on public education and health policy. This has been manifested for example in co-producing an Open University course on ‘Death & Dying’. This course emphasizes partnership with dying people and has contributed to the training of 20,000 doctors and nurses. The Award jury praised Professor Dickenson’s work as being “characterised by commitment, openness and thorough philosophical knowledge”.

She has produced twenty books and sixty articles ranging from medical ethics and feminist theory to literature and biography. In addition, Prof Dickenson is a frequent commentator on national radio and television. Having founded and directed the University of Birmingham’s Centre for the Study of Global Ethics, Donna Dickenson is now Executive Director at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. In her response to the award she observed, “In a time when it is often assumed that academic writing is irrelevant and that there are no right or wrong answers in ethics, the Spinoza awards give hope to those of us who accept neither premise as true.”

Chaos Theory & Pub Philosophy

The concept of a ‘university in the pub’ evidently appeals to Melbourne’s philosophers. John Lenarcic of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology is hosting monthly discussion groups at the Stork Hotel, Elizabeth Street. Mr Lenarcic describes his approach to the events as ‘chaotic’, but he has obviously struck the right chord as the gatherings are proving to be very popular. Recent topics of lively discussion have included free will, evolution, intelligent design, and whether Google is the search engine of a global consciousness.

Deus Caritas Est

In his first encyclical Pope Benedict XVI has shown his desire to share his views on the nature of love in a world where “the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence.”.

His letter, ‘Deus Caritas Est’ (‘God is charity’) signed on Christmas Day 2005 and sent to all the Roman Catholic Bishops in the world, is comprised of two halves. The first is philosophical, examining the concepts of eros, agape and logos (‘the word’) and their relationships within the church. Eros, romantic or ‘ascending’ love, is that which seeks to receive from another, while agape(unconditional love) is seen as ‘descending’ love, in which one gives of oneself to another. The continuity of these two forms of love follows the traditional Catholic understanding, which is influenced by the philosophy of Plato, Augustine, Bonaventure and ancient Jewish tradition. It is Pope Benedict’s emphasis on the interdependence of these two types of love that gives such a strong message. He sees them as separate halves of complete love, unified as both a giving and receiving. Eros, typified by love between two people, is accepted as a necessary and good part of the human condition ­– provided that physical expression is balanced by an element of Christian spirituality. This contrasts with the view of Anders Nygren, a Lutheran bishop in the mid 20th century who proposed that agape was the only Christian kind of love, and that eros is an ‘expression of the individual’s desires, and turns us away’ [from real love].

The second half of the Pope’s letter, said to be based on uncompleted writings left by his predecessor Pope John Paul II, considers the charitable work of the Church in the light of God’s love.

Sir Peter Strawson

The eminent Oxford philosopher Sir Peter Strawson died in February at the age of 86. Strawson became a lecturer at University College in 1947 on the recommendation of Gilbert Ryle, and was elected a Fellow of the college the following year. He published two very important papers in 1950, which are still held to be highly relevant today. The first concerned truth, and the second, presupposition within the framework of language. From 1968-87 he was Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford University.

In his book Individuals(1959) Strawson set out a distinctive position in philosophy of mind by arguing that the concept of a person is ‘logically primitive’, rather than being divided between a mind and a body. He claimed that “both predicates ascribing states of consciousness and predicates ascribing corporeal characteristics ... are equally applicable to a single individual of that single type.” This enabled him to avoid some of the difficulties of the mind-body problem.

Is Philosophy Vocational?

Figures for UK university applications reveal a downward trend in those wanting to study subjects such as history, classics and philosophy. Bill Ramsay, the Higher Education Minister, made big waves when he was reported as saying that “there is some evidence that students are choosing subjects that they think are more vocationally beneficial. If that’s what they are doing I don’t see that as necessarily being a bad thing”. However, he agreed that there was also merit in students taking courses in philosophy, and said he would not stop those who wanted to do so.

Timothy Williamson, Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University, argued instead that “Employers value the capacity for clear critical analysis gained from studying philosophy.”

Professor Bob Sharpe

We’re very sorry to report that a long-time Philosophy Now contributor, Professor R.A. Sharpe of the University of Wales, Lampeter, died in February or early March. He was taken ill the day after speaking at a conference on the philosophy of Peter Winch. Bob Sharpe’s 1997 book The Moral Case Against Religious Belief argued provocatively that religious belief was not merely mistaken but also immoral.

Question of the Month

We are starting a ‘Question of the Month’ column. For this we are inviting all our readers, whether professional philosophers or not, to address a fundamental problem in philosophy. Qualifications are not relevant, but thoughtfulness is. All responses printed will earn a philosophy book chosen semi-randomly by the Editor from his stockpile. The first question is: How can I know anything at all?

Answers should be less than 300 words. Points will be awarded for clarity, a good argument, significance, insight, originality and readability. The Editor’s judgement is final, of course.

Replies should be sent to the Editor at the Philosophy Now office. Subject lines or envelopes should be marked ‘Question of the Month’. If you want the chance of receiving a book, please make sure you include a (physical) return address.

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