Philosophy in the News (Week 9/25/17 – 9/29/17)

Philosophy in the news!

Philosophy in the News is a blog segment discussing recent news articles which have a philosophical bent. In our second week of philosophy in the news, we’ll be covering stories touching upon political philosophy, ethics, consciousness, religion, and of course philosophy in general (the history of philosophy to be exact).

The Turn of the Kurds: Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote last week in Project Syndicate on the dimensions of political self-determination. Reflecting on the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum, Haass identifies five key aspects that any particular ethnonational secessionist movement should have in order to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the international community:

  1. A history that indicates a clear collective identity for the people in question.
  2. A compelling rationale, in the sense that the population must be able to demonstrate that the status quo is imposing a large political, physical, and economic price.
  3. The population makes clear that it strongly favors a new and separate political status.
  4. The new state is viable (the last thing the world needs are more failed states).
  5. Secession does not jeopardize the viability of the rump state or the security of neighboring states.

When it comes to geopolitcal conflict there are no easy answers for resolving such issues, especially when you take into account the unique historical factors contributing to specific conflicts. While analyzing the political strife faced by Kurdish populations, Haass invites us to look at broader trends in order to conceive of circumstances under which succession might generally be permissible or even encouraged. Did he hit the nail on the head with his five points? Are there factors he’s missing? Or are there factors he should remove from his current list? Regardless of your answer, the question of defining self-determination in the modern era is becoming increasingly relevant to global politics.

Why ‘Why Buddhism Is True’ Is True: In this article, NPR Cosmos & Culture contributor Adam Frank (my favorite contributorthe segment) interviews Robert Wright (who leads one of my favorite Coursera courses) about Wright’s new book Why Buddhism is True.

Wright’s claims aren’t meant to corroborate any of the more mystical aspects of Buddhist tradition like reincarnation or karma — indeed he is a naturalist who likely rejects these things. As an evolutionary psychologist by training, Wright is more concerned with Buddhism’s claims regarding human motivation and behavior, things I’ve (very briefly) alluded to in my What is Philosophy? and What is Epistemology? posts. Using the paradigm of evolutionary psychology, Wright shows how ingrained biases in the brain translate to the type of suffering Buddhism is attempting to address through habits like meditation (which has measurable positive effects on the brain by the way). Wright also briefly reflects on how other religious traditions, like Christianity, in their own way identify some of the brain’s biases and attempt to address them.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book (though I do hope to eventually), but to get a feel for some of what Wright discusses you can enroll in his course on Coursera or listen to his recent interview with the guys at The Partially Examined Life.

Electric zap ‘wakes’ man after 15 years in a vegetative state: Scientists in France were able to bring a comatose 35-year-old man into a minimally conscious state with a new technique stimulating the vagus nerve. The details of the story fall squarely within the realm of neuroscience, but new techniques like the one used to “wake” the 35-year-old do have implications for our understanding of consciousness and the ethics of dealing with non-responsive patients. When doctors declare someone vegetative, are there cases in which there could still be a person “present” but simply unable to interact with the external world? And even if we decide there isn’t “anyone home” so to speak, does the mere potential of new treatments one day being able to revive some patients mean we need to change our understanding of the obligations we have to people in vegetative states?

Descartes Is Not Our Father: In an opinion piece in The Stone, The New York Times’ philosophy column, Columbia philosophy professor Christia Mercer makes the claim that René Descartes, who is sometimes credited with the creation of modern philosophy, has had his role overstated by historians and philosophers at the expense of his predecessors. Despite the seemingly broad scope of Mercer’s claim, she most specifically takes aim at the idea that Descartes’ cogito argument (alluded to in last week’s blog post) is groundbreaking, and she has done research which shows that some of Descartes’ arguments may have borrowed from earlier genres of writing.

Whether or not you agree with Mercer, her opinion piece indirectly touches on a broader issue that I talked about in my first post on this site. What we call “philosophy” is shaped by things outside of the practice of philosophy. For example, history and social factors have played a powerful role in determining what philosophical content is readily available to us and leaves us partly, if not completely in the dark regarding content which might not be considered relevant to philosophy.

Unfortunately for us, this means that some ideas remain obscure and neglected due to circumstance and cultural preference rather than by merit. I feel this leaves us worse off, as the pool of ideas and perspectives which we can draw from has been arbitrarily diminished. Although it is now easier than ever to learn about philosophy, we must remain aware of the fact that there are many perspectives outside of the traditions presented to us. Whenever we can we should try to seek out these perspectives and evaluate them.