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News: November/December 2012

Physicalist J.J.C. Smart dies at 92 • Einstein’s ‘God Letter’ sold at auction • Philosophy: And now the video game! — News reports by Sue Roberts

Philosophy Video Game

Some years ago, Philosophy Now ran a spoof review of a philosophy video game. The so-called ‘real world’ is belatedly catching up. A recently-launched video game called The Swapper integrates problems from both ethics and philosophy of mind into the game. According to a review on the eurogamer.net website, “The eponymous swapper is a cloning gun that lets you transfer your consciousness from one body to another,” as you roam an abandoned space station searching for its crew. “Rather than treating this as simply a means to a gameplay end, the narrative of this puzzle platformer delves into the ramifications that might arise from using such a device.” The game’s writer, Tom Jubert, told them “I’m very interested in philosophy, philosophy of mind – I kind of moved [the story] a bit more towards questions of what’s really happening to you, your identity, to your mind, when you transfer between bodies.”

‘God Letter’ sold on eBay

A handwritten letter from Albert Einstein to the philosopher Erik Gutkind, known as the ‘God Letter’, was offered for sale on eBay during October. Einstein wrote to Gutkind about a year before his death, prompted by reading Gutkind’s book Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt. In the letter, Einstein declared “The word of God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can (for me) change this.” The letter, on Princeton University letterhead and with the original envelope, stamp and postmark, was sold for $3,000,100 to an anonymous online bidder.

Holy Soap!

One of the scriptwriters of the popular British soap East Enders, Jennifer Robins, claims the inspiration for plots in the show comes directly from the Bible. Addressing an audience of media executives and religious leaders at BBC’s RE:THINK religious programming conference recently, she told them: “The sagas of Albert Square are a saga of free will where the individuals choose to be either good or bad but all of them have knowledge of the serpent. Like the parables it offers hope and morality where the good are rewarded and the bad punished either by death, rapid exit or are karmically bound forever on a wheel of fire. All our conclusions are essentially moral.” She insisted that the storylines were the result of intense research and consultation.

Prof. J.J.C. Smart

J.J.C. (‘Jack’) Smart, renowned as a pioneer of physicalism in the philosophy of mind, died in October, aged 92. He was one of the main originators of the highly-influential Mind/Brain Identity Theory. This claims that states of your mind don’t just arise from states of your brain, or happen at the same time as them, but are actually identical with states of your brain. For example, your feeling a pain might be identical with a particular group of nerve fibres (C-fibres) firing in your brain. Smart was also interested in ethics, and he co-wrote a very well-known book with Bernard Williams called Utilitarianism: For and Against. (Smart defended Utilitarianism in the book, while Williams attacked it.) Jack Smart was born in Britain and moved permanently to Australia in 1950. For many years he was professor of philosophy at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Prof. Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz has died aged 86. He was one of America’s best-known skeptics, an atheist, philosopher and publisher, and an organizer of such energy and effectiveness that he was known by many as the father of secular humanism. He founded the Prometheus Books publishing house, plus organisations including the Center for Inquiry, and magazines including Free Inquiry and the Skeptical Inquirer. He was professor of philosophy at SUNY Buffalo, in upstate New York. In the 1980s a newly discovered asteroid (6629 Kurtz) was named in his honour.

Annette Baier

Annette Baier, who has just died in New Zealand, was an ethicist, feminist philosopher and scholar of David Hume’s moral psychology. However, Baier argued that men’s moral psychology differs from that of women, with men tending to base ethical judgments on an idea of justice and women basing them more on a sense of caring. She spent most of her career teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, before retiring to her home town of Dunedin. A former student, Dr Rebecca Kukla, remarked online that she had learned from Baier: “that you could live a completely non-conformist life filled with romance and adventure and also be a successful academic philosopher.”

Jacques Barzun

The French-American philosopher of education, cultural commentator and historian of ideas Jacques Barzun died in San Antonio on October 25th at the age of 104. Barzun’s writing career spanned more than 70 years, and From Dawn to Decadence, which made the New York Times bestseller list, was published in 2000 when he was already 92.

Ray Billington

Professor Ray Billington died in September. A former priest, he was officially declared a heretic by an assembly of the Methodist Church, and later became a fullblooded atheist before eventually turning to Eastern mysticism. He taught philosophy for many years, founded several local philosophy discussion groups, and was the author of books including East of Existentialism (1990), Understanding Eastern Philosophy (1997), Religion Without God (2001) and Living Philosophy: An Introduction to Moral Thought (1988).

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