On the Naughty Step, Mr Brown…

This week’s political headlines in the UK have been dominated by the emergence on Sunday of reports that a number of staff working at No.10 Downing Street in the office of the Prime Minister had contacted the National Bullying Helpline in response to treatment by their employer. Alongside these reports, the media has widely covered stories recounted in the book of political commentator Andrew Rawnsley, who describes a number of incidents involving Mr Brown, his staff, and apparently toys being thrown out of prams.

Despite Gordon Brown’s temper already being well-known, political debate has, quite predictably in an election year, focussed on the potential for character assassination of the PM. Continue reading “On the Naughty Step, Mr Brown…”

Why are we so afraid of Death?

In the Annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture, BBC, this Monday, Sir Terry Pratchett offered a perhaps controversial view on medically assisted suicide in case of a terminal illness. Since he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, he is openly furthering the debate about assisted suicide in Great Britain. He is proposing to be used as a test case for a tribunal that would be made up of specialists in palliative care, and hopefully in ethics as well. Most important criterion to be on the tribunal is to be over 45 years of age, in order to hopefully having gained a little wisdom and compassion. Both are needed to decide Continue reading “Why are we so afraid of Death?”

Why Some People Will Never Forget a Face

AT&T Laboratories Cambridge

How does the brain process information? In particular, is the cognitive portion of the brain divided up into a number of task-specific ‘modules’, each of which are devoted to a specific task, or is the brain constituted by (one or many) processing units which are flexible in their operation? Modularists, as those in the former camp are called, often appeal to a form of argument which makes use of the idea that certain cognitive characteristics appear to be dissociable from others, such that certain individuals can excel, or struggle, in distinct tasks in ways not necessarily related to the complexity of the task, or proportional to their general intelligence. To this end, Williams Syndrome and – at the other end of the spectrum – SLI are invoked to support a modular conception of language faculties, and autism is sometimes (questionably) invoked in support of the view that the capacity to deploy a theory of mind is modular.

Face-recognition is another commonly-cited, and perhaps less-controversial, candidate for being a modular system. Continue reading “Why Some People Will Never Forget a Face”

In Defence of Babel

Recently, BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme asked the question: What is lost when a language dies? This question is prompted by the prediction of an (un-named) US linguist that by the year 2100 90% of the world’s 7,000 currently spoken languages will be dead. The progressive march of dominant languages such as English is held to account for such changes in the world’s linguistic geography. Languages, like species, can now be listed as ‘endangered’: US organisation Ethnologue suggests that there are 473 such languages in the present day. Furthermore, it is suggested that 133 of the world’s languages now have less than 10 speakers.

The question, however, is should we care, and if so, why? Continue reading “In Defence of Babel”

Intensive interrogation doesn’t lead to information

390px-Theresiana-LeiterThe use of harsh interrogative techniques by the U.S. government has been a hotly debated topic in the global media in recent months. The debate is especially intense with respect to the moral significance of such techniques. As significant is the controversy about the veracity of the information acquired through the application of these techniques.

These two issues are often considered to be related. The weight of our moral considerations is likely to be inversely related to the utility of the practice (though followers of Kant would reject this claim). In other words, if we find that reliable and crucial information can only be obtained by inflicting significant harm to a single purportedly depraved individual, our moral responsibility towards that individual seems diminished. If, on the other hand, milder techniques are just as effective, our reasons for employing harsh interrogation seem morally suspect.

New research reported on the BBC website indicates that the harsh interrogative techniques in question are not only ineffective at eliciting reliable and crucial information, but also that they have a negative long-term effect on the possibility of obtaining that information. The research shows that, under conditions of extremely high stress, detainees Continue reading “Intensive interrogation doesn’t lead to information”

Remembering the good, forgetting the bad

800px-EdisonDelights1905The relation between memory and personal identity is a well trodden track in the metaphysics of mind and self. But an article on the BBC News website suggests a connection not standardly considered.

A standard proposal of their relation, for instance, is that A is the same person as B only if A can remember experiences had by B. A consequence of such a view is that a person who is sufficiently old and incapable of remembering experiences had by her younger self is not the same person as that ‘younger self.’ There are variants on this approach which rule out that consequence. But all variants share the following feature: the link between memory and personal identity is in what is remembered.

But recent psychological research gives reason to consider a different kind of relation. Psychologists have found that as we get older, we tend to remember positive things better than we do negative things, with a corresponding change in how we behave (we’re happier) and in how we exercise our mental capacities. If this is true, then perhaps, in addition to changes to what one remembers, there are also changes in how one remembers that could constitute changes to who one is.

For the BBC article go here. For a more elaborate description of the research go here.

Related articles:
£1.99 - small Anthony Collins on the Emergence of Consciousness and Personal Identity
By William Uzgalis , Oregon State University
(Vol. 4, March 2009)
Philosophy Compass