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News: January/February 2011

Philosophy Day row irks Iran • Mindreading computers • Philodcasts? • French toddlers play with ideas — News reports by Sue Roberts

Les enfants philosophiques

At a time when France is experiencing an upsurge of interest in philosophical affairs, encompassing festivals, corporate seminars, caf é debates and even cartoon strips, a debate over the age at which the discipline should be introduced to pupils is hotting up. A new documentary (Ce n’est pas qu’un debut or ‘Just a Beginning’) follows a Parisian nursery class of three and four-year olds being taught philosophical concepts over a two year period. Filmmakers Jean-Pierre Pozzi and Pierre Barougier recorded 180 hours of footage which have been condensed into one hour and 35 minutes. A lighted candle serves as a focal point for the childrens’ attention, after which discussion was encouraged of topics such as love, death and what it means to be intelligent.

Meanwhile the French Minister for Education has proposed a new pilot scheme to teach philosophy to 15-year-olds. At present it is not taught until a student’s final year. Critics of the schemes argue that the discipline may be ‘dumbed down’ by these moves. However, university staff have defended the changes saying that the ‘tools of philosophy’ provide young people with insight when they most need to think for themselves; to question themselves about the world and about their own feelings in the context of other peoples’ experiences.

“Without Any Gaps”

Professor Peter Adamson of King’s College London has a new online project: a free weekly podcast about the history of philosophy. He explains that “Basically the idea is to cover the whole history of philosophy (“without any gaps”) in accessible, 20 minute or less episodes.” The podcasts can be found here: www.kcl.ac.uk/ikings/index.php?id=409.

So far twelve talks are available and, logically enough, they all concern ancient philosophy. Peter Adamson and his guests have talked about Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras and other early Greek thinkers and the most recent podcast, with guest Malcolm Schofield of Cambridge University, describes the overall development of Presocratic philosophy from the Milesians to Parmenides. You can listen to each one on your computer or download it as an MP3 file.

Now they can read your thoughts…

Existing brain-controlled computers, which require users to imagine making physical movements to control a cursor on a screen, may be superceded by new technology which will be able to interpret words as they are thought. It is reported that scientists at Intel Laboratories in Pittsburgh are creating maps of activity in the brain for individual words that can be matched against the brain activity of someone using the machine to determine the word they are thinking. Dean Pomerleau, senior researcher, says that the aim is to produce small devices to fit into headsets to produce a similar level of detail of brain activity to that which is currently obtained by bulky, magnetic resonance scanners. He explained: “The computer uses a form of 20 questions to narrow down what the word is. So a noun with a physical property such as a spade produces activity in the motor cortex of the brain, as this is the area that controls physical movements. A food-related word, like apple, produces activity in those parts of the brain related to hunger. So the computer can infer attributes to each word being thought about and this allows the computer to zero down on what the word is.” He predicts that in the future this will enable us to write letters, open emails or do searches just by thinking about it.

Failure’s advantages

A study carried out at the University of Colorado Denver Business School shows that people and organisations that miss their goals disastrously perform better in the long run. Professor Desai, who led the study, said “knowledge gained from success was often fleeting while knowledge from failure often stuck around for years.” Publishing the research in the Academy of Management Journal, Prof. Desai reported he had based it on companies and organisations that launch satellites, rockets and shuttles into space. He says failure causes a company to search for solutions and it puts the executives in a more open mindset. He doesn’t recommend seeking out failure in order to learn.

World Philosophy Day

UNESCO’s World Philosophy Day 2010 took place on 17th November, and as usual was marked by celebrations, talks, roundtables and other philosophical events in many countries. As in previous years, a particularly full lineup of events was hosted in Rochester, in upstate New York, by Philosophy Now’s Tim Madigan with David White and Robert Zack. The long-planned location of the main Philosophy Day conference this year was Tehran, but some protested the choice of venue due to recent Iranian government pressure on philosophers there (see News Page, Issue 81). Therefore on 9th November, UNESCO dissociated itself from the Tehran event. Madigan remarked: “Since UNESCO has cancelled its Philosophy Day meeting in Iran, we’ve invited [President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be our keynote speaker in Rochester. But we insist that he wear a tie – we’re sticklers for formality.” Faced with what must have been a tricky choice, the ‘controversial’ President Ahmadinejad opted instead to speak at the opening of the conference in Tehran. Gholamali Haddad Adel, head of the Iranian organizing committee, grumbled that “UNESCO has become a political tool in the hands of world powers.” Others expressed disappointment and the UNESCO director general in Iran, Mohammad Reza Saeedabadi said: “Philosophy is the language of intellect and intellect is a universal language.”

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