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News: August/September 2010

’Plato’s musical code’ claim • Blue skies grow cloudy • Forced ops dilemma • Philosopher and wit Anthony Quinton dies — News reports by Sue Roberts

Plato’s Hidden Musical Code?

Newspapers in July reported that an American philosopher based at Manchester University had made a startling claim about Plato’s dialogues. In a paper in the journal Apeiron, Dr Jay Kennedy, a specialist in the history and philosophy of science, argues that the dialogues contain a regular mathematical structure which relates them to an ancient 12-note musical scale. Kennedy points to the numbers of lines in the dialogues (for instance, the Apology has 12x100 lines, the Republic has 12x1,000 lines). He claims that each dialogue divides into twelve parts, and that at the start of each part Plato has inserted a passage corresponding to that note in the scale. In ancient Greek musical theory, some notes in the scale were harmonious, and others dissonant or neutral. Kennedy argues that Plato marked ‘harmonious’ notes with passages of text about virtue, beauty and the forms and ‘dissonant’ notes with passages about vice, shame, or sorrow. If Kennedy is right, this structure would be evidence of Plato’s adherence to the ideas of the Pythagoreans, who believed that the universe was ruled by mathematics and music, and whose works were often marked by line-counting. Plato’s Pythagoreanism was widely mentioned by philosophers close to his own time, but there are few direct references to Pythagoras in his work.

Blue Skies Grow Cloudy

‘Blue-sky thinking’ – creating ideas in a business environment through brainstorming – is counterproductive according to research carried out by the University of Texas and published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology. The study claims that the effectiveness of such exercises is overestimated, since once an idea is aired everyone else subconsciously comes up with variations on the same thought. Consequently there is less, not more, creativity. The researchers monitored discussions between groups of two, three and four participants. They found a decline in the number and variety of ideas within the larger groups. It was found that individuals were more productive when writing down ideas away from the group.

Informed non-consent

A fierce debate has been sparked following a highly-controversial ruling by Sir Nicholas Wall, President of the Family Division in the UK’s Court of Protection, in the case of a 55-year woman who is to be forced to undergo life-saving surgery against her will. Surgeons at her local hospital sought permission to sedate the woman in her home and carry out surgery in hospital to remove her cancerous uterus. Consent was given since the woman has learning difficulties and was deemed incapable of making a rational decision about the procedure. The patient had agreed to surgery but then changed her mind citing a phobia of needles and hospitals. The Mental Capacity Act 2005 allows patients to specify in advance the circumstances under which they don’t wish to receive further treatment, in legally-binding ‘living wills’; the same act also allows the Court of Protection to decide on the best interests of those who lack mental capacity. Dr Lisa Bortolotti, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Birmingham, said the use of force would be more controversial if it became apparent that the patient did understand the position but feared surgery more than death.

Dawkins’ Sceptical School

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, is reported to be considering setting up a ‘free school’ under the British Government’s plan to encourage independent educational establishments. He says that he would want pupils to be taught the value of scepticism and to appreciate the value of evidence. Expressing his views online he said his ‘free thinking school’ would treat the Bible as a work of literature. Emphasizing that he did not intend to indoctrinate children in atheism, he continued “The Bible should be taught, but not as a reality.”

Going Ape

Mens’ attitude and reaction to competition would appear to be closely linked to two types of apes, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. ‘Status-striving’ men tend to produce the macho hormone testosterone when challenged, reflecting the pattern seen in chimpanzees. Laid-back men produce cortisol, nicknamed the cuddle compound, in the same way as bonobos. The study concludes “These results suggest that the steroid hormone shifts that are correlated with the competitive drive of men are shared through descent with other apes.” Chimpanzees and bonobos are mankind’s closest living relatives and shared a common ancestor with homo sapiens about 6 millions years ago.

Philosophers Moving On

The Oxford philosopher Anthony Quinton died in June. Lord Quinton, as he was widely known after being raised to the peerage by H.M. Queen in 1982, was renowned for being an affable, witty, bon-viveur. He wrote a number of clear, jargon-free books about philosophy, especially political philosophy. He served in many public roles, including president of Trinity College Oxford, British Library chairman, theatre curator and head of various philosophical societies. In academic circles, his two most influential books were both published in 1973: The Nature of Things, in which he defended a materialist picture of the universe, and Utilitarian Ethics, in which he defended the idea that we should strive for the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

Philosopher of science David Hull died at the beginning of August. One of the pioneers of modern philosophy of biology, he also wrote about Charles Darwin’s views on scientific method.

Brian O’Shaughnessy died at the age of 84. An Australian philosopher who taught at King’s College London, he developed strikingly original ideas on consciousness and the mind-body problem.

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