R.I.P. Alexander Piatigorsky

The Philosopher’s Eye was sad to see that the charismatic and idiosyncratic philosopher Alexander Piatigorsky passed away earlier this month. Piatigorsky was a professor at the London School of Oriental and African studies (SOAS) until his retirement in 2001. (Sir Isaiah Berlin had intervened to ensure his appointment after he fled the USSR.) The topics on which he wrote ranged from the failures of totalitarian communism to Buddhist thought and even to Freemasonry. Piatigorsky was also a talented linguist – he compiled the first Russian-Tamil dictionary – and a novelist.

But the volume which is perhaps best known amongst philosophers in England is “Symbol and Consciousness: Metaphysical Discussion of Consciousness, Symbolism and Language” (1982), which he co-authored with Merab Mamardashvili. Continue reading “R.I.P. Alexander Piatigorsky”


Words, words, words . . .

A recent study by the University of California, San Diego, estimates that the total amount of words “consumed” in the United States – where this consumption is from televisions, computers and other media and does not include people simply talking to one another – has more than doubled from 4,500 trillion in 1980 to 10,845 trillion in 2008. If images are added to the approximately 100,500 words per day we are exposed to, then it is estimated that we are bombarded with the equivalent of 34 gigabytes of information each day. You can read more about the study here.

Some academics are worrying about the possible adverse effects of this deluge of information. The psychiatrist and author Edward Hallowell, an expert on attention-deficit disorder, has suggested that people who spend too much time on their laptops and Blackberrys “are so busy processing information from all directions they are losing the tendency to think and to feel… People are sacrificing depth and feeling and becoming cut off and disconnected from other people.” Other researchers, however, dismiss such concerns. According to Amanda Ellison, of Durham University’s neuroscience research unit: “it is quite difficult to actually overload the brain because it can contain a lot more information than was previously thought.” She also points out that: “There is no one memory centre. Visual information is stored in one part of the brain and audio information is stored in another.”
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Judge cites Russell in protecting philosophical beliefs

Earlier this month, Mr Justice Michael Burton ruled that employees holding philosophical views based on science and reason should be afforded the same legal protection from discrimination as those with religious beliefs. The case concerned Tim Nicholson, the former head of sustainability for Grainger, the UK’s largest listed residential property company. Nicholson claimed that he had been sacked due to his environmental beliefs. But Grainger’s lawyers contended that environmental views are political and a “lifestyle choice” which cannot be compared to religion or philosophy.

Mr Burton ruled that Nicholson’s views were entitled to the same protection as religious views and that the case should go before an employment tribunal. The written ruling, which looked at whether philosophy could be underpinned by a scientific belief, quoted from Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and ultimately concluded that a belief in climate change, while a political view about science, can also be a philosophical one. Interestingly, Mr Burton ruled last year that Al Gore’s environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth was political and partisan as he assessed whether it should be shown to schools. (You can read about the case here and here.)

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Caring Robots

90px-2008_Taipei_IT_Month_Day2_Taipei_City_Government_Intelligent_Housekeeping_RobotBack in 1966 Joseph Weizenbaum created “ELIZA”, a relatively simple computer program which was meant to simulate a psychotherapist. The program worked largely by rephrasing a patient’s statements as questions which were then posed back to the patient. Many subjects reported preferring ELIZA to their human therapists, and some continued to value ELIZA’s therapy even after Wiezenbaum revealed ELIZA’s workings. (You can read a transcript of ELIZA in action here.)

Things have moved on somewhat since ELIZA’s day. Maja Matarić, a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southern California, has developed Robots that can provide advice and therapy to patients who have suffered strokes, or who suffer from Alzheimer’s. The Robot can monitor the patient’s movement as they perform a regime of physical therapy, using a combination of laser scanners and cameras, and provide encouragement and advice. But even more impressively, the robot can monitor how introverted or extroverted the patient is, and tailor the tone of their advice giving accordingly. One stroke patient reported much preferring the robot’s advice and encouragement to that of her husband . . .

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Philosophy of Illusions

Thurston_magician_posterResearchers from Edinburgh University have claimed to show that stage illusionists and magicians rely on the phenomenon of “change-blindness” for their tricks. Although we may feel that we normally have visual awareness of an entire stable scene all at once, experiments show that subjects can be surprisingly bad at noticing large-scale changes that occur right before their eyes. In fact, our eyes “saccade” around a scene, very rapidly shifting a very narrow point of focus. Changes that occur during such shifts and outside the narrow range of focus will not be noticed by the subject.

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