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News: May/June 2011

Identity in computer games • Philosophy depts fight closure • Lévy and the Libyan rebels — News reports by Sue Roberts

Games and Philosophy in Athens

The topics of academic conferences can sometimes give a good indication both of philosophy’s increasing specialisation and of its engagement with wider culture. In April, Athens played host to a conference on the ‘Philosophy of Computer Games’. Many of the papers dealt with the nature of personal identity as revealed in computer games. The keynote talk, for instance, was on ‘The Metaphysics of Avatars and Their Relation to Players’. Another was called ‘What is it Like to be a (Digital) Bat?’

Battling Philosophy Departments

A plan has been announced to scrap the Philosophy Department at Greenwich University in London. Inspired by the recent success of protesters at Keele University where a proposal to drop Philosophy was abandoned, a Save Philosophy at Greenwich campaign has gathered over 500 Facebook supporters. The leaders called for a “noisy demonstration, with live music” to coincide with a management meeting on 19th April. They hope a meeting in early May will reverse a decision already taken to scrap the single honours programme immediately. The axe is also expected to fall on philosophy courses at London Metropolitan University, which is cutting two thirds of its degree courses by 2012. The American Philosophical Association has expressed concern about radical budget cuts to Philosophy at the University of Nevada-Reno. However in New Jersey, students at Monmouth University have launched a campaign called Philosophy Revolution to reintroduce a Philosophy major there more than 20 years after it was scrapped.

Feeling radical today? We can help

China’s greatest seat of learning, Peking University, which is known colloquially as ‘Beida’, announced on its website a plan to screen its students for academic, psychological and social problems and offer them counselling and guidance. Among the ten problem categories listed are students with ‘radical thoughts’ and ‘eccentricities’. This has created a stir as Peking University has a longstanding reputation for reformism and intellectual freedom. A politics professor at the neighbouring Renmin University, Zhang Ming, said: “For a university to see a student having radical thoughts or independent thinking as a bad thing that has to be punished, is terrible.” However, deputy head of student affairs Zha Jing insisted that the program was to help students with difficulties and not to control or punish them.

French Philosopher “Persuaded Sarkozy to intervene in Libya”

The philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy has been widely credited with persuading President Sarkozy to intervene in the Libyan rebellion. BHL travelled to rebel-held Benghazi in early March, hitching into town on the back of a vegetable seller’s truck. He managed to get invited to a meeting of the rebel council, and afterwards called the French President on a satellite phone, telling him that the rebels were democrats, not extremists, and persuading Sarkozy to receive a Libyan rebel delegation at the Elysée Palace in Paris a few days later. After that meeting, Sarkozy lobbied for UN intervention, which happened just in time to save the rebellion from being crushed by Gaddafi’s tanks. Since then, the French media have treated BHL like an unofficial second foreign minister (to the reported disgust of the actual foreign minister, cheese-eating surrender monkey Alain Juppé). Der Spiegel began an interview with the question: “Monsieur Lévy, are you satisfied with your war?” and he responded with a spirited critique of Germany’s refusal to back military action in Libya.

Animal Ethics: New Journal

Transatlantic co-operation has resulted in the launch of a new journal: The Journal of Animal Ethics. Published by the University of Illinois Press in collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, the journal will appear twice a year. The Editor, Professor Andrew Linzey, said: “Academics have been slow to contribute to the burgeoning public debate about animal ethics… We want to ensure that animals receive the academic attention they deserve.” Papers in the first issue cover topics such as the use of animals in spinal cord research and include one by Philosophy Now columnist Joel Marks on how animal suffering goes unrecognized in research.

Musical Brainwaves

Research involving a paralysed patient at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in London resulted in the woman composing some music using brainwaves to operate a computerised music system. Marini McNeilly is unable to speak or move, other than eye, facial and head movements. In the experiment she was fitted with a cap lined with electrodes to detect different patterns in her brainwaves depending on what she was looking at onscreen; in this case icons flickering at different frequencies. An adaptation was made so that different frequencies related to different musical processes (such as ‘select note’, ‘change pitch’, etc). Rapidly mastering the technique, Mrs McNeilly was able to compose and play music using only her brainwaves.

AC Grayling to head BHA

Prof. Anthony Grayling has been named as the next President of the British Humanist Association. He will be the first philosopher to hold the office since A.J. Ayer in the 1960s. Grayling, who is well-known as an author and broadcaster as well as an academic, will succeed journalist Polly Toynbee for a two-year term from July 2011.

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