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News: May/June 2007

Ancient Aristotle commentary discovered • Robot rights call rebuffed • Philosophers of wine hold popular gathering — News reports by Sue Roberts

Palimpsest treasure hunt

Over the past hundred years, a 13th century prayer book known as the Archimedes Palimpsest has yielded up fascinating ‘buried texts’ hidden in its pages. Though ‘recycling’ may be a buzz word right now, our ancestors frequently erased and re-used existing parchments to create new manuscripts. In this instance it appears that the scribe responsible scrubbed clean the pages of five older books to create the prayer book. In 1906 it came to light that one of these older books was a previously unknown work by Archimedes. By 2002 it had become possible to gain a clearer view of this important text as a result of modern imaging technology, which also revealed a second text, the only known manuscript by Hyperides, a 4th Century BC Athenian politician. Remarkably, multispectral imaging techniques have now revealed a third text hidden in the palimpsest. This is believed to be a fragment of ancient commentary on Aristotle’s Categories, a book which for centuries served as the foundation for the study of logic. The author of the commentary was probably Alexander of Aphrodisias, in the 2nd or 3rd century AD.

Govt cutbacks hit UK philosophy

In Britain, a severe round of government cutbacks has meant that far fewer grants will be available to postgraduate philosophers for education and research. The Arts & Humanities Research Council has protested bitterly and outlined radically reduced spending plans following a swingeing cut of £5.3 million to their budget. In a normal year the AHRC makes around 7,000 research awards and 1,500 postgraduate awards across the humanities after a thorough peer review process.

The cup that cheers

What do a wine-tasting expert, two vintners, a sommelier, a wine critic and fourteen distinguished philosophers have in common? Delegates to a conference on ‘Philosophy and Wine’ on 4th April in San Francisco knew that the answer was a shared passion for good wine. Other questions on the table were whether a knowledge of wine makes it taste better; if tastes and aromas are in the wine or in the head; and whether wine ratings are meaningful. Wine was used as an example in examining questions of taste and smell and the relationship of sensory experience to language, knowledge, evaluation and appreciation.

The conference was part of the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association’s Pacific Division. This was the second conference of its kind, the first having been held in London in 2004.

No rights for robots

A new study called Robo-rights proposes that if true artificial intelligence is ever developed then robots might have to be given similar rights to humans, including the right to vote and the right to ‘robo-healthcare’. However the study, commissioned by the UK’s Dept of Trade and Industry and conducted by a management consultancy, has been decried by various scientists in robotics research who have denounced it as superficial, poorly informed and a diversion from more pressing ethical issues. A new generation of more autonomous robots will come onto the market soon, and the Times quotes Prof. Alan Winfield as saying that a key issue should be to decide who is responsible if such a robot injures or kills someone.

Taylor wins Templeton jackpot

The message that the threat of terrorism could be better addressed by greater spiritual examination in Western and Islamic societies has earned Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor the world’s richest prize for philosophical or scientific work. US-born British financier Sir John Templeton established the Templeton Foundation in the early 1970s with the aim of ‘encouraging and rewarding spiritual focus’. Taylor has been studying people’s desire to seek meaning and spiritual direction and how such quests can sometimes end in violence. He argues that relying on a secular analysis of human behaviour has led Western nations to faulty conclusions and that spiritual examination is needed to combat movements such as al-Qaida. The Templeton Prize of £800,000 will be awarded at Buckingham Palace in May.

The intellectual dimension of fanaticism was also at the heart of a talk in April by Prof Jonathan Adler at Carleton College, Minnesota. Adler, a US Editor of Philosophy Now, considered traits often associated with fanatical reasoning such as self-righteousness, excessive certainty and intolerance. He argued that fanaticism resides in a lack of self-restraint in reasoning and belief.

Brain damage and compassion

New research by neuroscientists at several US universities casts some light on the degree to which moral judgments are based on emotions.

A study was performed in which thirty subjects were presented with a set of scenarios pitting immediate harm to one person against the certainty of future harm to many people caused by that individual. Six of the participants had damage to a small region behind the forehead, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC); twelve had damage to other areas of the brain while the remaining twelve had no brain damage. Those with damage to the VMPC stood out in their willingness to harm the individual. Most of the other participants wavered in their opinion that the individual posing the threat should be disposed of. Although they recognised that it would be the right step in theory, they were able to empathise with the individual. This compassion was entirely lacking in the VMPC patients.

Evolutionary psychologist Prof. Marc Hauser of Harvard notes that “A wide class of moral judgments are completely normal even without emotional input, showing that we have a cold moral calculus that operates without emotional inspiration.”

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