On Ex Machina

Because if that [Turing] test is passed, you are dead center of the greatest scientific event in the history of man.
— Nathan
If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man. That’s the history of gods.
— Caleb

This is an exchange between two of the main characters in Ex Machina. A superb thriller, the film explores a range of ethical implications concerning the human ability to transcend itself through technological innovation. In this case, it focused upon the Turing Test, and the possibility of creating a conscious machine. Early on, the two characters cited above touch on what is in my mind a crucial ambiguity in the philosophy of technology. It goes back to Plato's Phaedrus, where Socrates cites writing's divine origins. Central to my recent work has been this question of the problematic way in which technique implies transcendence in philosophical discourse. With this problem in focus, I have aimed to provide an alternative approach to basic aspects of technique, such as writing in books. In any case, Ex Machina maintained a philosophical ambition worth noting alongside its coldly narrated suspense.  


On Drones

What does Francis Fukuyama do after the end of history? In his leisure hours, he puts together little drones in his garage and then proudly exhibits them on his blog. He is part of an rapidly developing subculture: that of the homemade drone. Following in the footsteps of the model enthusiasts of the 1960s, there today exists a whole little community of amateurs who buy or construct drones at the cost of a few hundred dollars. With their microcameras on board, these machines make it possible to produce unofficial little films, some of which are strikingly beautiful. I am thinking in particular of a flight over New York in which, once over the Brooklyn Bridge, the camera scans the facades of the skyline, ending up by gliding past the flame on the Statue of Liberty. Proof enough of the validity of Walter Benjamin’s thesis that technology, today used for death-dealing purposes, may eventually recover its emancipating potential and readopt the playful and aesthetic aspirations that secretly inspire it.

Grégoire Chamayou "Theorizing the Drone," -

Longreads blog posted this interesting excerpt of four chapters from Chamayou's book A Theory of the Drone. The article contrasts the logic of the kamikaze and drone as follows: "The drone and the kamikaze stand in contrast as two opposed forms of moral sensibility, two forms of ethos that reflect each other but are each other’s antithesis and nightmare." And yes, Francis Fukuyama really is a drone hobbyist - For another take on critical aesthetics of drone practices, the National Gallery Victoria in Melbourne, was displaying the "Untitled (Drone)" series by Trevor Paglen. The works can be seen on his website here, but really need to be seen in person to appreciate their scale. 

On Freedom Regained

Gazzaniga is interested in how complexity provides a way of understanding how minds operate in ways that can’t be either predicted or understood by only studying brain processes. Mind and consciousness are ‘emergent properties’ which arise out of nothing more than brain processes, because the complex organization of these processes creates new properties which are not found at the fundamental physical level. This explains how it can be that beliefs, desires and intentions can actually change things, without us having to think that they are mysterious, non-physical things.... This is one of the most important scientific facts we need to bear in mind when thinking about free will. Too often it can seem that, if brains are the engines of thought, then thoughts themselves cannot change anything. Complexity theory shows us how this can be false, without the need to postulate any strange, weird, supernatural or non-physical will or soul. It shows that the idea that thoughts, beliefs and desires can cause things to happen is not outmoded metaphysics, but bang up-to-date science.

Julian Baggini "Freedom Regained," -

On Free Will

Commitment, public or private, to human dignity should not entail perpetuating fictions about free will, even if we need to ward off the counter-mythology of mechanical models of agency. And behind all these discussions stands the need to remind ourselves to go on being surprised, puzzled and prompted by what we take for granted about action itself – initiating events in the world – and language: speech that makes things different. No philosophy, politics or sociology worth the name will survive without that surprise; without at least a faint taste of Golding’s potatoes.

Rowan Williams, "Can We Ever Be in Charge of Our Own Lives," -

On University Specialization

In late-18th- and early-19th-century Germany, readers troubled by the huge increase in printed material felt imperiled by a veritable ‘plague’ of books circulating among the reading public. Deep concerns about what counted as authoritative knowledge made writers and intellectuals anxious as they heard and read increasingly pointed critiques of universities as outmoded guilds that needed to justify their existence in an age of easily accessible information. Philosophers and thinkers like J.G. Fichte, F.W.J. Schelling, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Wilhelm von Humboldt were the first to embrace and argue for the idea of a renewed university with specialized academic knowledge as its organizing system... Specialized academic knowledge, Wissenschaft, was not simply an ideology imposed by the vague rationalizing imperatives of modernity. It was a normative and ethical framework that valorized particular intellectual goods (the never-ending production of knowledge and the ability to perceive the relationships of various sciences) and inculcated particular virtues (rigor, collaboration, intellectual imagination, industriousness, responsibility, and a critical disposition). Academic knowledge tied epistemology to ethics. It formed people and grounded knowledge in a community that could sustain, cultivate, and evaluate it. And it gave rise to great achievements, from the first well-funded and organized laboratories to large philology projects used to this day.

Chad Wellmon, "In Defense of Specialization," -

"Academic knowledge tied epistemology to ethics."

On William James' Pragmatism

[William] James’s pragmatism insisted that philosophy could still have life-and-death significance. Philosophy D addressed an array of existentially loaded topics, the kind that most academics assiduously avoid: truth, God, evil, suffering, death, and the meaning of life. This was not some dry PowerPoint presentation. ‘The man of genius,’ Emerson tells us, ‘inspires us with a boundless confidence in our own powers.’ That is what James tried to do: encourage his students to wrestle with life’s most difficult questions. And to do so — bravely — on their own terms. This didn’t mean that students were just left to fend for themselves. Far from it. James was unusually close to them and one of the few professors who entertained questions when he lectured. His students loved him for it.

On Extremism

Obama, after all, faces two overlapping but distinct challenges. One is an ideology: the totalitarian, even genocidal, vision espoused by ISIS. The second is a tactic: terrorism, which is available to people of all ideological stripes and which grows more dangerous as technology empowers individuals or groups to kill far more people far more quickly than they could have in ages past. Instead of assuming that these threats are the same, we should be debating the relative danger of each. By using ‘violent extremism’ rather than ‘radical Islam,’ Obama is staking out a position in that argument. It’s a position with which reasonable people can disagree. But cowardice has nothing to do with it.

Peter Beinhart, "What Does Obama Really Mean by 'Violent Extremism'?" -


On Philosophy of Information

We used to think that power was about either the creation or the control of things, that it was about the means of production of goods. That’s what Marx thought. It was not about the production of experiences or services. Then society switched to a focus on power being expressed through the control of information. Once control of information is recognised as a source of power, then any powerful entity wants to control this information. Governments and empires all want to control information. What we’re seeing today is the very beginning of another switch, from power over things, to power over information, to power about the questions that shape the answers that give the information about things. If you take the view that semantic information is broadly speaking delivered as a question plus an answer, then those who control the questions shape the answers. That’s the new power we need to understand and manage properly today.


On Philosophy of Technology

What was also fascinating in this book [Philosophy of Technology: 5 Questions] was how little discussion there was in philosophy of technology circles about the internet –philosophers of technology completely missed the train on the internet. I haven’t seen any good books, or any books frankly, which engage with new media or blogs or social networking or privacy, let alone transparency or WikiLeaks from the philosophy of technology perspective. For me it is kind of sad that probably one of the most important issues of our day is neglected, with most philosophers of technology still arguing about the clock and the wheel. I don’t know if the internet isn’t too big a subject, and we need a separate independent field, something like philosophy of the internet. It boils down essentially to whether the internet is so unique as a technology that it even defies the conventions of philosophy of technology as a field, and whether it requires its own set of principles and assumptions.

Writing Lately

I often use this website as a space to summarize my research writing. I've been busy this semester finishing two main projects in philosophy of religion.

The first looks at secularization. I've just finished editing a collection of essays for Palgrave Press on Religion after Secularization in Australia which should be out in September this year. The book focuses on the ways religion has changed through ongoing processes of secularization, with attention to the Australian case. It includes essays on the topic by historians, sociologists, legal and cultural theorists and philosophers. My own contribution concentrates upon the hermeneutics implicit to procedural accounts of secularization, with particular attention to religious discourse in the public sphere. 

The second project I have been working on investigates the way technology implies transcendence. My approach to the problem focuses upon simple aspects of technology such as the development of writing. For instance, one of the earliest philosophical accounts of technological transcendence can be found in Plato's critique of writing in the Phaedrus. My approach to this topic is grounded in a return to unanswered questions in Derrida's grammatology and Heidegger's question concerning technology. I am just finishing the first monograph which begins with Derrida's deconstruction of Plato in order to return to an early moment in the development of the book, the rise of the codex in the first few centuries of the Common Era. This project is larger than I had anticipated and will be followed by future volumes.

On Philosophy

Just came across this Philosophy Bites podcast that compiled responses to the question, "Who is the most impressive philosopher you've met?" 38 minutes of philosophers' answers gives you a sense of recurring criteria, such as wit, breadth, clarity, incisiveness, generosity, and humility, and a few names are repeated such as John Rawls, Derek Parfit, Hilary Putnam, and even Derrida gets a mention.

On Phenomenology

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss phenomenology, a style of philosophy developed by the German thinker Edmund Husserl in the first decades of the 20th century. Husserl’s initial insights underwent a radical transformation in the work of his student Martin Heidegger, and played a key role in the development of French philosophy at the hands of writers like Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology has been a remarkably adaptable approach to philosophy. It has given its proponents a platform to expose and critique the basic assumptions of past philosophy, and to talk about everything from the foundations of geometry to the difference between fear and anxiety. It has also been instrumental in getting philosophy out of the seminar room and making it relevant to the lives people actually lead.

"Phenomenology" BBC Radio 4 In Our Time -

On Simulated Homelessness

SimCity players have discussed a variety of creative strategies for their virtual homelessness problem. They’ve suggested waiting for natural disasters like tornadoes to blow the vagrants away, bulldozing parks where they congregate, or creating such a woefully insufficient city infrastructure that the homeless would leave on their own. You can read all of these proposed final solutions in Matteo Bittanti’s How to Get Rid of Homelessness, ‘a 600-page epic split in two volumes documenting the so-called “homeless scandal” that affected 2013’s SimCity...’ For Bittanti, it’s impossible not to see the connections between the homeless problem in the Bay Area and the way it’s portrayed in SimCity. ‘That is, can we fix homelessness in SimCity, or because we haven’t fixed homelessness as a problem in real life, therefore we are bound to lose?’ Bittanti asked. ‘Is SimCity a reflection of what’s happening in reality, and therefore is very realistic, or is it a programming issue?’

"Is 'SimCity' Homelessness a Bug or a Feature?" -

Hitchcock's Holocaust

In 1945, overseen by Alfred Hitchcock, a crack team of British film-makers went to Germany to document the horror of the concentration camps. Despite being hailed as a masterpiece, the film was never shown. Now, in a documentary called Night Will Fall, the full story of its creation and suppression is being told.

I Am Not Charlie Hebdo

Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct. The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should be an occasion to end speech codes. And it should remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.

David Brooks, "I Am Not Charlie Hebdo" -

On Meritocracy

The Latin deservire means ‘to devote oneself to the service of.’ In Vulgar Latin, that came to mean ‘to merit by service.’ We need to revive that notion of “democratic merit.” Democratic merit would provide access to education to those who serve the goals and contribute to the conditions of a thriving democracy. It does what our current meritocracy fails to do: creates an incentive system that emphasizes not just the possession of individual talent and related personal success but also the ability to collaborate and the commitment to building a better society for more people.

Lani Guinier, "The Tyranny of Meritocracy" -


Women, Religion and Politics

A new issue of Feminist Theology on Women, Religion and Politics is out, which features articles from the last few years of research on religion and politics at the University of Newcastle. Dr. Kathleen McPhillips introduces the collection which can be downloaded here:

The papers in this special edition were part of an international seminar that was held in Shoal Bay, Australia in December 2012. Participants from Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia gathered together for three days to workshop papers, discuss ideas and enjoy the beautiful coastal environment of northern New South Wales. The seminar was funded from a grant from the University of Newcastle, NSW for the research group Religion in Political Life, and was the first of two international semi- nars organized with Professor Lisa Isherwood at the University of Winchester. The second seminar was held in July 2013 at Winchester University and consisted of papers from European scholars. These essays will also be published in a future edition of Feminist Theology.
— Kathleen McPhillips, "Introduction: Women, Religion and Politics," Feminist Theology, vol 23 no 2, 2015.


On Religion and Media

Recall that the earliest products of the Gutenberg printing press were indulgences and, eventually, the Bible. Knowing what a medium does at its outset doesn’t define its history. Rather, it just indicates the energy with which it began. We may see the Internet as an openness, an availability, a potential divulgence of privacy and overexposure of self. But what if it all is just song and dance relative to its basic proposition, namely that none of us never ever get to know what is really going on? The digital is a new beginning; the digital is a place to hide. In between those two propositions is the work of many humanists, not least of which, perhaps most of all, is the student of religions.

Kathryn Lofton, "The Digital Is a Place to Hide," The Immanent Frame -

On Academic Tricks

An editorial in the latest issue of the Journal of Management Studies (JMS) focused on the growing problem of unethical behaviour in academic publishing, particularly in light of some recent retractions in the field... But what the JMS editorial overlooks is a range of research practices that do not fall under the quasi-juridical category of ‘academic misconduct,’ but which pose just as much of a threat to standards of scholarship. We are talking here, of all those ‘tricks of the trade’ that scholars use to artificially increase their chances of publication in premier journals. These tricks include writing papers with senior academics, even though they may do little more than put their name on the byline. Some academics may prominently cite the work of senior editors in a submission to the journal they edit. Others establish multi-authorship cartels, whereby a group of scholars write one paper each but list the others as co-authors in order to double, treble or quadruple one’s output. Some academics steer the work of doctoral students towards their own research area to cultivate future collaborators who will be willing to share their data and do the lion’s share of the work.

"The Dark Arts of Academica - And Why Journals Must Do More to Tackle the Problem" -