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News: July/August 2006

Ancient Philosophical Question Answered • Voltaire Worth 5 Joyces • Philosophy TV on net • Torture Doesn’t Work • Apes To Have Rights? — News reports by Sue Roberts in London and John Ruddy in New York

Chicken, Egg, Egg, Chicken

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? A scientist, a philosopher, and a chicken farmer got together in London and decided: the egg.

The group claims the first bird that evolved into a modern chicken had to have been a chicken embryo first. The philosopher said people were mistaken to think the ‘parents’ of the first chicken egg had to be a genetically bona-fide chicken in order to lay a chicken egg. A genetic mutation inside the egg would have created a chicken before a chicken had laid the chicken egg.

This decidedly easy answer is getting media attention due to the ‘controversial’ debate over evolution. This question was answered very thoroughly five years ago, by Christopher Langan. He answered four variant questions:

1 Which came first, the chicken or (just any old) egg?

2 Which came first, the chicken or an egg laid by a chicken?

3 Which came first, the chicken or an egg containing a chicken? [answered by the group]

4 Which came first: the chicken, or an egg both laid by and containing a chicken?

Langan’s answers were: 1 the egg, 2 the chicken, 3 the egg, 4 the chicken. He said anyone with some knowledge of logic and biology can verify these answers. Apparently this news story isn’t news after all.

Gaming With God

Game developer Ralph Bagley is thrilled to be adapting from a book he describes as full of “drama and tension,” and he can’t help but get excited when talking about creating games based on it. It has been on best-sellers lists for centuries. You guessed it: the Bible.

Bagley isn’t the only one. Another company is developing a game based on the Left Behind book series, called Eternal Forces. The book and the game take place just after the Rapture, when all the Christians have (supposedly) ascended to heaven. It is set in Manhattan, in which players try to convert New Yorkers to Christianity before they join up with the Antichrist’s ‘Global Community Peacekeepers.’

The game’s creators, Left Behind Games Inc., are hoping to reach a broader audience by delivering an engaging experience – one that happens to be based on the Book of Revelation. They believe their message will take care of itself if the game is fun enough.

High Minded

Jean-Paul Sartre was a lifelong stimulants fiend; he said he couldn’t have made his most prized work without them. W H Auden popped speed every morning for twenty years, regarding it as a “labour-saving device” in the “mental kitchen.” Perhaps scientists are catching up. A recent study showed that people get better ‘message-related thinking’ and argument recall after drinking caffeine-laced orange juice. Subjects who consumed caffeine were also more likely to attend to, and agree with, persuasive arguments. Perhaps you really should talk to your boss about your raise over a cup of coffee.

Ape Rights

A controversial Spanish law to grant basic rights to chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas may be introduced after the summer recess. Championed by Francisco Garrido, a Green MP for Seville who sits with the ruling Socialist coalition, the law would get rid of the concept of ‘ownership’ for great apes and place them under the ‘moral guardianship’ of the state. This condition is currently applied in the cases of the severely handicapped, children in care and coma-patients. Parliament has heard the testimony of members of the Great Ape Project (GAP) a pressure group led by the philosopher Peter Singer which works for the creation of a ‘community of equals’ in which humans, chimpanzees and orangutans would all enjoy three fundamental rights, these being: right to life; right to freedom, and protection from torture. The proposed resolution has received the public support of ministers. However, a representative of the Roman Catholic Church has voiced the opinion that “only a ridiculous or distorted society” could propose such a law since “we don’t give rights to some people… such as unborn children”. The Spanish branch of Amnesty International said that “humans have yet to see their [own] rights fully guaranteed”. If the law is passed it would become a criminal offence to mistreat or kill a great ape other than in self defence or for medical euthanasia. Great apes held in Spanish zoos would be moved to state-built sanctuaries.

Red Letter Day

A collector paid over £400,000 at an auction in Paris for 26 letters sent by French philosopher Voltaire to Russia’s Empress Catherine the Great, dwarfing the selling price of a first-edition of Joyce’s Ulysses, which went for a mere £80,000.

The letters far exceeded their estimated price of about £200,000, setting a world record for letters of this kind.

Catherine II considered herself a ‘philosopher on the throne,’ keeping in contact with several great philosophers. Voltaire was never good at flattering the powerful; in one of the letters he calls Catherine the Great ‘fat and ignorant.’

Study Says Torture Doesn’t Work

A new study that applies the principles of game theory to intelligence-gathering says torture does not succeed in getting information. Roger Koppl, director at the the Institute for Forensic Science Administration at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said torture doesn’t work because those inflicting the torture can’t make a believable promise to the torture victim that the punishment will stop once he or she tells the truth.

His study, entitled ‘Epistemic Systems’ applies game theory to social situations in which people must decide whether to lie or tell the truth. Game theory studies how people in conflict try to get the best outcome for themselves. According to Koppl, torture victims know governments resort to torture because they do not know the truth – but this unfortunately also means they would be unable to recognize it when they hear it. Even if they do believe they have learned the truth, the victim still has no reason to believe the torture will stop. “Torture victims understand this fact and therefore hide the truth,” he said.

Koppl’s research overturns conventional wisdom that suggests torture is an effective means of gathering information, particularly in a ‘ticking bomb’ scenario. Koppl said, “There are situations in which torture works, but they are rare. Twentieth-Century experiences with torture show that it is futile in most cases.”

Foucault Puts The Boot In

The Australian Football League has sponsored research that applies the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault. Australian behaviourists Peter Kelly and Christopher Hickey wrote a study they called ‘Foucault Goes to the Footy: Professionalism, Performance, Prudentialism and Playstations in the Life of AFL Footballers.’ Kelly and Hickey say their research is “informed by Foucault’s later work on the care of the self, to focus on the ways in which player identities are governed by coaches, club officials, player agents and the AFL commission/executive; and the manner in which players conduct themselves in ways that can be characterised as professional – or not.” They’re using Foucault’s philosophy to help clubs choose players who will be worth the recruitment and salary investment. Foucalt died in 1984, the year the Essendon Bombers won the championship.

Public Health an Ethical Issue

In Britain, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has launched a consultation on the ethical issues surrounding public health. A Consultation Paper provides background information on these issues and asks questions in the context of five case studies: infectious diseases, obesity, smoking, alcohol, and the supplementation of food and water. For example: Are there cases where the vaccination of children against the wishes of their parents could be justified? Would measures such as forced quarantine, which helped to control the outbreak of SARS in Asia, be acceptable in countries such as the UK? What are the roles and obligations of parents, schools, school-food providers and the government in tackling childhood obesity?

The period of consultation will last for four months, closing on 15th September 2006. All comments received will be carefully considered by the Working Party, which is chaired by Professor Sir John Krebs and includes members with expertise in health, economics, law, philosophy, public health policy, health promotion and social science. A report is expected to be published in autumn 2007.


Meaning of Life on the Intertube

Ever wonder why the world’s religions are at each other’s throats? Or about what consciousness is? Or what the nature of evil is? Or what a mind is? Or what God is? Or whether faith is bad for science? We have the perfect channel for you. You don’t even need a TV, just a computer. The site meaningoflife.tv is the newest innovation in face-to-face philosophical discussion. It features numerous video interviews with biologists, philosophers, priests, and authors, including such luminaries as Daniel Dennett, John Maynard Smith and Francis Fukuyama. They are generally discussing big questions involving religion, science, truth or happiness.

To Russia With Lies

Travellers through Russia may soon find themselves subjected to a lie detector test. Initially to be used at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on those suspected by the security service of being terrorists or drug smugglers, it will eventually be used on all passengers. Officials predict the test could be administered in the short time it takes for belongings to pass through the X-ray machines. Passengers will be asked to hold the handset of a ‘truth verifier’ while they are asked the following four questions: What is your full identity? Have you ever lied to the authorities? Are you carrying weapons? Are you carrying narcotics? The machine’s manufacturers claim it can distinguish between answers given from memory and answers given by imagination.Those failing to answer satisfactorily can expect to be escorted to a cubicle for more intensive questioning.

Study William James!

The first issue of a brand new journal devoted to the American philosopher William James is available online at http://williamjamesstudies.press.uiuc.edu/. William James Studies is an interdisciplinary peer-reviewed journal dedicated to publishing high quality, scholarly articles related to James’ life, work and influence. Papers are now being solicited for the second issue, which will celebrate the centennial of the publication of James’ Pragmatism.

A Wake-You-Up Sleeping Pill

Terri Schiavo was the centerpiece of a bitter US court case in 2005 – often philosophical, often religious – which asked, “What are the signs of an active human consciousness?” Semi-comatose, apparently unaware of her surroundings, Schiavo was deemed by her husband to be in a persistent vegetative state. He sought to end her vegetative existence, claiming it was what she would have wanted. Opponents were furious: they felt Terri was the only person who could speak for herself. The rub was: she could never have spoken in her state – until now. Now new research says that many semi-comatose patients awaken after being given a common sleeping pill, surprisingly. Zolpidem, popularly known as Ambien, enables them to interact, make jokes, and in one case, learn to catch a baseball. Each subject took one pill every day, with no major side effects.

Euthanasia Without Consent?

In Issue 55 we interviewed the ethicist Dame Mary Warnock about euthanasia, and discussed her support for Lord Joffe’s bill to legalise assisted dying. The bill was later blocked when it came up for debate in the Lords in May, and seems unlikely to make any further progress. However, in June a brief media stir was created when a retired Professor of Medical Ethics, Len Doyal, made a much more radical propossal. He called for non-voluntary euthanasia to be legalised – ie euthanasia in cases where the patient is unable to express a clear wish. He claims that doctors already do this when they remove a feeding tube from someone whose life is judged to be no longer wiorth living, and that to legalise such actions would remove pointless guilt about them.

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