Journal of Applied Philosophy Annual Prize

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The Journal of Applied Philosophy will henceforth award an annual prize of £1000 to the best article published in the year’s volume. The first award will be made in respect of Volume 28 (2011). The judgement as to the best article will be made by the editors of the journal.

Journal of Applied Philosophy provides a unique forum for philosophical research which seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, the journal brings critical analysis to these areas and to the identification, justification and discussion of values of universal appeal.  Journal of Applied Philosophy covers a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education.

Machine vs. Afterlife

Well-known scientist Stephen Hawking gave a rather controversial interview recently. Saying that there is no afterlife to look forward to, classifying this as a fairy tale arose a lot of criticism and controversy.

He isn’t the first notable person trying to detach from the conscience of people the image of the luxuriant Eden Garden promised after death. Paradisiacal notions are cross-cultural, often laden with pastoral imagery, and may be cosmological or eschatological or both.

But these words coming from one of the most respected people in history – transmitted by means of a special technology which transforms thoughts in sounds – gave another meaning.

This is the frequent statement of a scientist. He’s not saying “God isn’t real”, he’s only saying there is no need of God to explain the world. This is a scientific allegation, with its foundation back in time: in the theory of Occam’s razor to be specific: We should seek the greatest value of our action. The idea born in the Middle Age asserts that we shouldn’t multiply hypothesis in order to explain a phenomenon.

The same thing is said by Hawking – implying that modern physics doesn’t need a God means it would be an over and above hypothesis in this system of explaining the world.

For most religions, Paradise is the image of a non-spatial, non-temporal, fairy-like place, where only the ones who live their lives accordingly to the moral code of each religion wind up. Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom believes that human beings are cabled to the fear of death and because of this fear they invented philosophy and religion, but also a fairytale terminology.

I think the phantasm of immortality is a mental construct necessary to the human condition which helps them deal more easily with all the bad things that happen and also counter-attacks the fear of death and the relationship between the individual and the world.

However, a scientist who refuses the religious horizon is disqualified. It’s like a scientist that rejects from the start a hypothesis. But what is science if not the disclosure to any hypothesis until the discovery that it can or can not be sustained. On the other part, asked by the interviewer “If this is the situation, what can we do?” he responded :

“We should seek the greatest value of our action.”

And how is this different form any other moral percept of religions?

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Does Nirvana have a Neural Signature?
Population Pessimism

What Is It Like To Have Whiskers?

20th century Philosophy saw a burgeoning interest in modalities of sensory perception un-enjoyed by humans. And the interest is well-deserved; for it is by looking to the physiognomy of bats and dogfish that we can best test our intuitions on whether or not adequate knowledge of an organism’s physical structure can ever tell us everything that we can know about what it is like to be that organism. However, philosophers tend to gravitate towards sonar and perceptual sensitivity to magnetic fields without paying attention to whether any lessons might be learned in less weird perceptual modes. Are non-human sensory modes like sonar always wholly unimaginable, or are some such modes more imaginable than others? If we can’t imagine what it is like to perceive through sonar, for instance, can we imagine what it is like to tell an object’s shape by our whiskers?

As the Economist reports, tremendous advances have recently been made in understanding how seals detect and perceive prey whilst swimming in murky water. When an object moves about under water, it creates a signature wake that carries information about the object. This information is lost on humans; a wake is a wake so far as our sensory systems are concerned. But a series of tests on a trained seal have shown that seals are able to discriminate objects whose width vary by as little as 2.8 cm, and can also distinguish objects of a similar width yet different shape.

This ability probably falls under the realm of good old-fashioned tactile perception, yet try as I might, I cannot imagine being able to distinguish the wake of a round object from that of a square one. At the same time, however, I feel inclined to contend that we can more easily imagine what it is like to have seal whiskers than what it is to perceive via sonar or disturbances in the magnetic field. Can seals help us to better understand the conceptual barriers that seem to arise in the more extreme cases of experience? Or might we even find that spending an afternoon in the pool after not shaving for a few months uncovers unknown sensory powers in our sideburns?

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The Debate on Martin Rees’ Templeton Prize

Last week, the theoretical astrophysicist Professor Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society and current Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, accepted the Templeton Prize. Funded by a massive endowment from the Tennessee-born billionaire Sir John Marks Templeton (1912-2008), the prize is awarded, according to its website, to ‘a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.’

That Rees’ acceptance of the prize has caused controversy should surprise few, given the number of highly opinionated and vocal participants in the current science-religion debate. Indeed one thing Rees was undoubtedly being rewarded for was his unusually conciliatory contribution to this often hostile conversation. But those who feel their hostility to be justified, particularly on the scientific side, regret what they perceive as the conversion of Rees into Continue reading “The Debate on Martin Rees’ Templeton Prize”

Potassium Iodide and Nuclear Weather

As the BBC reports, a nuclear survival online retailer nukepills.com, received 3,800 orders for potassium iodide (mostly from American citizens) in just 18 hours following the Fukushima disaster. The interest, however, is not limited to ordinary folk– even state governors have contacted the supplier. The idea that one might survive exposure to radiation thanks to a pill– a ‘nuke pill’– is a powerful one, far more powerful than potassium iodide’s actual capacity to stave off the negative effects of radiation.

The search for potassium iodide in countries where there is zero threat of contamination from Fukushima is telling: for people are stockpiling the pills as they would stockpile rations in anticipation of a natural disaster. Nuclear disasters are today viewed as Continue reading “Potassium Iodide and Nuclear Weather”

Science and the Importance of Seeing

We usually visualise cells as colourless, stationary blobs; but new advances in imaging have radically changed our power to capture the lives of cells.

Science, we know, demands that we become comfortable dwelling within the abstract. No one can ever ‘see’ a quark or lepton, though we can listen to musical interpretations of the activity of subatomic particles. So too, the very cells that constitute our bodies are elusive; when we isolate them and direct light upon them to study them, we inevitably kill them. The less we can visualise, make auditory, or tactile the subjects of micro-science, the fewer chances are there that we will trade the mental state of wonderment for familiarity and comprehension. It may not be hyperbole to say that some of the philosophical questions that arise Continue reading “Science and the Importance of Seeing”

Its a scientifically un-certain fact.

Its all so obvious.

We all know that science is a construct of unquestionable truth about the world.  This is drummed in to every school child, almost doctrinally, for several years (and, in this author’s experience, for an upsettingly long time at university as well).  Admittedly it is portrayed as an ever-changing, evolving truth, not only in the context of how each year the explanation of a particular concept is given increasingly refined detail, but also in how science is studied itself, moving from simpler concepts to more complex ones, leading us to wonder where the buck finally stops.  And that is usually conceived of as being someone, somewhere, even if they are Einstein-esque and would struggle to fill a string quartet with contemporaries who understand them, who really knows how something works, or is.  And that should be comforting to all budding scientists. Continue reading “Its a scientifically un-certain fact.”