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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Imagining the future

I came in quite late to this discussion on the Benford & Rose site, maintained by Gregory Benford with evolutionary biologist Michael Rose.

I'm not sure if all my maunderings made good sense. The issues raised in Greg's original contribution go very wide indeed. He starts off worrying about the greater commercial success of fantasy (compared with science fiction), but segues into issues about the future of Western civilisation itself. A lot there to respond to.

More generally, it's a fascinating site. I see that somewhere on the site someone has reviewed a friendly debate between me and Greg from a few years ago. I'm not even sure I'd still subscribe to the views I expressed then (I suspect that Greg's views may have changed a bit for different reasons; he seems more pessimistic these days). Interesting to revisit it, though.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Many-tentacled monster

Anyone else ever have days when they feel they are in a wrestling match with something like this?

I have to admit that it sometimes feels that way to me when I struggle with big projects, like my current one. You can solve one problem but there always seems to be another one to take its place. Right now, I'm trying to sort out in my mind whether a whole lot of work I've been doing in the past couple of years is strictly necessary for the thesis. Maybe it'll turn out that I could get the same results by sticking with a more off-the-shelf basic theory, rather than doing all the fundamental work in normative theory that's been occupying so much of my time. I'm starting to suspect that I could get many of the same conclusions as I'm reaching just by beginning with rule-utilitarianism. That, of course, does not mean that rule-utilitarianism is correct. It might be a very good practical approximation, though. I need to think about this.

"School Reunion" (no, not me)

I'm a huge fan of the British science fiction series Doctor Who, and I've been happily watching the reruns that began in 2003, and then, since last year, the new series from the BBC.

The most recent episode to be shown in Australia (where we're three or four months behind the UK, but I believe ahead of the US) was the "School Reunion" one, which brings back Elisabeth Sladen's character, Sarah Jane Smith for some better closure between her and the Doctor than we got back in the day. This was pure nostalgia for me - here's another bit of popular culture that I grew up on and have always loved both as a kid and adult.

To the credit of all involved, the characterisation of now-middle-aged Sarah and the relationships between her and the Doctor, and between her and current companion Rose Tyler, are handled with remarkable sensitivity. The whole thing left me feeling a bit teary on Saturday night, though it didn't stop me fronting up afterwards to drink a few pints of Guinness with a bunch of Monash colleagues.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Supping with Leviathan - emerging biotechnologies and the state

The state has a role in regulating the new biotechnologies, but what should that role be?

Thoughts of a good Millian
I'm a good enough Millian to be suspicious of attempts by the state (or by the pressure of public opinion, if it comes to that) to interfere in the ways that competent adults choose to live their own lives. Mill's "harm principle" may not be justified all the way down into some kind of philosophical bedrock, but it does seem to be a reasonable one for modern democratic societies to respect in a wide range of cases where the state might otherwise be tempted to overreach. Some such principle is needed to protect us from Leviathan's attempts to control our lives, or else its powers become something to contemplate with fear as much as gratitude.

First, the state has a role in regulating "how we get there from here" - the manner in which emerging biotechnologies can be researched and invented. I hope that no one wants to see research programs that are cruel, exploitative of vulnerable people, or likely to produce shocking outcomes such as the birth of congenitally deformed children. There is a role here for regulators in ensuring that any research is conducted in ways that meet normal ethical requirements.

I think we should accept that this will sometimes create an impasse, whether temporary or permanent. For example, we don't have a safe technology for human reproductive cloning, and for the moment at least there's no obvious prospect of developing it without conducting unethical experiments. That does not entail that human cloning would be an intrinsically wrong act, or that it should be stigmatised as seriously reprehensible or anti-social by the enactment of draconian laws (such as those applying in Australia). The problem is just that there is no obvious ethical way of getting to safe human reproductive cloning from where we now are. If someone ever finds that way, then I suggest that their actions should not fall afoul of the law.

Second, the state has a role in developing standards to protect consumers from products or procedures that are not safe for their purpose. In areas such as this, where a high degree of expertise is required to make judgments, some degree of state paternalism is surely allowable before we begin to feel that it is offensive to us as competent adults. Though there comes a point with paternalistic legislation where it is, indeed, offensive, the state should be given some margin of appreciation to work within. More generally, the state has a role in regulating the safety and efficiency of industries within its jurisdiction, including the biotech industry. This might, for example, include establishing licensing schemes to ensure the competence and ethical responsiveness of practitioners and corporations.

What about the children?
So far, so good.

But does the state have a legitimate role that goes beyond these - possibly into the area of making moral judgments about what technologies people should use in the process of shaping their own lives and those of their children?

Where children are involved, there is often a double standard: attempts by parents to shape the development of children's capacities and personalities through "natural" means, such as exposing them at an early age to dubious moral or religious beliefs, are seldom criticised (except by the bold and forthright Richard Dawkins), but postulated attempts to use "unnatural" means are routinely castigated, even if they involve measures that might actually increase the ability of children to think rationally and autonomously as they grow older. Something odd is going on here - perhaps the good old "yuck factor" at work.

That is not to say that we adults should be able to do anything at all to shape children's personalities and capacities. Perhaps, indeed, we should be critical of parents in a wider range of situations than has historically been the case. Whether or not that is so, the same moral standard should apply to all attempts by parents to shape and socialise their children. That does not necessarily mean that the same legal standards should apply, since there may be factors to do with which laws are enforceable or which kinds of behaviours are so deeply rooted in human nature that attempts to prohibit them would simply be cruel, etc. However, it is significant that no special moral issue arises.

At first blush, the following suggestion looks plausible: before we prohibit a parental practice on the ground that we must protect children's interests, it should be a necessary condition, even if not a sufficient one, that the practice really is likely to be harmful to children. Sounds reasonable, yes? At least, we should be able to defend a claim that the practice presents a risk to children's flourishing in some publicly explicable sense. Many such claims are quite implausible when gazed at with a cold eye.

Supping with the sea monster
But should some technologies be suppressed even if they could be developed ethically, used safely, and applied to purposes that do no obvious harm to others (including to the flourishing of growing children)? This is where any role for the state becomes highly controversial. The first thing that should be said is that we need to very wary of legitimising Leviathan's actions in making judgments about whether we are acting in a manner that deviates from the most valuable forms of life, or that shows a lack of moral virtue, or expresses undesirable attitudes. These are just the sorts of judgments that would, quite rightly, horrify a liberal like Mill. If we're supping with the sea monster, here is where we need a very long spoon.

However, I do think that Leviathan has a legitimate stake if there is some prospect that fundamental elements of the social order found in modern liberal-democratic societies could be threatened by emerging technologies. This might mean, for example, that we don't want the state to permit the creation of beings who might be unusually dangerous to the rest of us, even if the harm to us is merely potential and the beings concerned will arguably flourish in their fashion (consider a happy, superhumanly powerful psychopath ). Again, we don't want the recreation of a pre-democratic, hierarchical kind of society in which some people flourish only at the expense of others who are subordinated. The state has an interest in trying to prevent this, even if it is likely to come about only gradually, with no direct harms inflicted during the process.

Well, what should Leviathan do?
It's one thing to say that Leviathan has a legitimate interest, but how should it actually act? Surely that depends on many things, including the magnitude of the risk identified, the probability of its occurrence, the difficulties that might be experienced in taking various actions, the utility of not taking action and letting events run their course, the most advantageous action that would have a good prospect of avoiding the risk, and so on. In other words, I suggest that the state should respond to these sorts of (sometimes quite intangible) risks in a manner not unlike the common law "calculus of negligence" that applies to civil claims for damages arising from breach of a duty of care. The analogy can perhaps be pressed further: for example, the state should not take action based on conjecture about some far-fetched or unforeseeable outcome. We know that any action, or any failure to act, may have far-reaching implications that no one could reasonably be expected to foresee. That is not a good reason for paralysis.

If, as I believe, emerging biotechnologies have an obvious prospect of bringing great benefits, the state should not suppress them on the basis of mere speculation about the social harms that they might also bring. An attempt should be made to assess what the realistic risks are, and to see what can be done to reduce those risks while minimising the loss of likely benefits. As I've written elsewhere, it would be deeply regrettable if some beneficial technologies had to be suppressed or severely regulated. If this happens, it should lead us to expressions of regret and a sense of humility, rather than to moralistic posturing.

Still, I can imagine scenarios that might prompt us to take some public action to affect not only the order in which certain technologies are developed but also the order in which a whole range of problems - scientific, technological, and social - are tackled. For example, there could be scenarios in which we must tackle poverty and inequality before we dare permit the sudden availability of a particular technology.

That is not actually my preferred policy option with any technology. The main one to which such thinking might apply is germ-line genetic enhancement, if this became unexpectedly flexible and powerful. Even here, however, I suspect that the practical reality will be that whatever is developed in the foreseeable future will not require suppression in order to avoid the recreation of hierarchical societies.

Nonetheless, it is legitimate for the state to assert a degree of control, partly because the viability of the social order is at least conjecturally at stake, and the more so because there are so many other aspects of technological development and distribution that clearly fall within Leviathan's proper purview - e.g. the above-mentioned matters of research ethics, consumer safety, etc. If obtaining control involves a rational program of differential problem solving, I can live with it, perhaps, though I'd want my say about what problems should be tackled immediately. (Hint: we can't go putting off everything else until we solve all the intractable problems of social and global justice; some far-reaching biotechnological research will have to be pursued at the same time.)

Drawing out Leviathan with a hook while keeping the candle burning
There has to be a limit somewhere as to what we embrace as legitimate action by the state.

Less legitimate action is exemplified by such knee-jerk (over-) reactions as the enactment of sweeping and harsh criminal prohibitions of human cloning, genetic manipulation of human embryos, and so on. Given that draconian overreactions have been so common in many jurisdictions, with no end in sight, perhaps the best thing that philosophically-minded people like me can do is simply try to keep alight the candle of reason, dissenting from the approaches that have been so dominant to date. Some of us need to maintain a reminder that all these complex matters to do with emerging technologies need to be considered coolly, without pre-emption by the yuck factor, or Kassian repugnance, or by even the instinctive impulse that we all sometimes feel to attempt to use the law to impose our personal views of what is virtuous, or what is a valuable way of life.

That's a pretty tough job. Of course, someone's got to do it.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Egoboo

I'm realistic enough to be aware that my various careers to date have been relatively mediocre. I have an entry in Wikipedia based on the fact that I have some books with proper-sized commercial print-runs, which is one of the standard criteria they use over there. I also have an entry in Who's Who in Australia based on totally different criteria relating to my work in labour relations. It's not as if I've been world-beating in either field, though I did do some good work as a fiction writer and also as an industrial advocate. Ironically, what I think may be my best and most important work - the large body of substantial articles on public policy issues published over the past decade or so, mostly in Quadrant but also in Meanjin and more recently in refereed journals - would not be enough to cut it in either of these places.

What provokes these reflections is that I received an invitation overnight from the international Who's Who to provide my details. I'm not sure how that came about - e.g. did someone who knows me submit my name, or do they scour publications like Who's Who in Australia, or what? I spent most of the morning filling in the on-line form, which made a helluva lot of demands on my memory. This doesn't necessarily mean that I'll be appearing there, but, oh well, we'll see what comes of it.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Genetic enhancement and the point of social equality

Debates about future technological developments, and their social acceptance or rejection, frequently involve claims that these developments will challenge equality or that their emergence will be inconsistent with egalitarian political aspirations. Sometimes it is difficult to get clear exactly what argument is being put here. For example, it is frequently claimed that the benefits of new technologies will be disproportionally available to the rich, and so (it is suggested) are not morally permissible and ought to be suppressed. Attempts at suppression would most likely involve the enactment of criminal prohibitions, but there are other ways for the state to flex its muscles, such as by refusal to grant patents for certain categories of inventions, the imposition of burdensome taxes, and so on. The relevant powers of the state go far beyond the criminal law.

Can't the rich do anything?
The obvious rejoinder to such egalitarian arguments is that very many things are disproportionally available to the rich - think of fine wine, good grooming, fashionable clothes, fancy cars, piano lessons, international travel, and opportunities to meet famous or beautiful people - so should all those things be suppressed by the coercive and other powers of the state?

If yes, then the conversation is at an end. Someone pushing this line may be invincible in argument, as is anyone prepared to bite all possible bullets. In that case, though, the position being put is sufficiently radical to have no practical prospect of influencing policy. I see no need to deal with the merits of such a view (at least not here). If the answer is no, a further question is raised as to what distinguishes, say, access to genetic enhancement from access to all the other good things mentioned in the previous paragraph.

The question is not merely rhetorical - there may well be reasons why we can be relatively relaxed about allowing the rich disproportionate access to fine wine, international travel, and so on, while still worrying about genetic enhancement. However, to understand what those reasons are, and how far they should concern us, we need a theory to help us decide what sorts of things are and are not dangerous, or otherwise wrong, to place in the hands of the rich.

My approach so far has already ruled out the kinds of radical egalitarian theories that deny the rich differential access to any good things at all (and thus, in effect, deny that anyone should ever be allowed to become richer than anyone else). That is all to the good. Apart from the fact that such theories have no practical political prospects, they are far too demanding. They rule out all economic competition between human beings as morally impermissible. That immediately contradicts the almost-universal intuition that at least some degree of economic competition is okay, that it is more a question of what limits it should have. Those limits will based on a theory about the point of applying a degree of social pressure in the direction of economic equality.

Okay, so we need to find ourselves a plausible theory of social justice.

Democratic equality
Enter, stage centre-left, Elizabeth S. Anderson's account of what she calls "democratic equality" (in the journal Ethics, 1999). Anderson is critical of the luck egalitarianism that is prominent in much recent political philosophy since the publication of Rawls's A Theory of Justice. Instead, she seeks to ground a conception of equality in political opposition to oppressive hierarchical relationships between persons in a society. Within inegalitarian societies, she says, "Those of superior rank were thought entitled to inflict violence on inferiors, to exclude or segregate them from social life, to treat them with contempt, to force them to obey, work without reciprocation, and abandon their own cultures." (page 27)

For Anderson, egalitarian movements oppose hierarchies of this kind, denying that there are natural aristocrats and slaves, seeing all persons as moral agents (with no gradations of moral agency, so they can be described as "equally" so) who are able to exercise moral responsibility, cooperate with others, and pursue a conception of their good. Egalitarians in actual political movements seek a society without oppression, one in which all individuals stand as equals in public discussion - which means having the ability to participate, having views listened to and answered respectfully, and not having to bow and scrape or represent themselves as inferior. (pages 27-28)

The goods that must be available to all citizens are those that are required to make possible an egalitarian society in this practical sense. Thus, according to Anderson's account, it is not required that all individuals be brought down to the same level of wealth, or that the cosmic injustice (if so it can be called) of differential natural talents be eliminated, or its outcomes nullified. Something more modest, but also more apt for political mobilisation, is called for - essentially ongoing action to stop oppressive social relationships.

All this, of course, is still somewhat idealistic. Do we have to give respectful attention to literally anything that someone might put to us in political debate, no matter how irrational or illiberal? Perhaps not. But Anderson's theory is clearly not meant to be interpreted in a literal-minded way. At a more theoretical level, she quite rightly does not deny the obvious fact that people vary in both talent and moral virtue. However, she does appear to rely on the dubious claim that we are all equal in moral worth because we have an equal capacity for moral agency. It is difficult to see how that claim can be either a conceptually necessary truth or an empirical fact, so what else it can be that compels us to accept it (is it a kind of moral prescription, a transcendental presupposition, a useful fiction, or what?)?

Nonetheless, the ideal of social equality that Anderson argues for is something that it makes sense for us to embrace as individuals and as members of societies. By and large, we do indeed work on the prima facie assumption that adult citizens are capable of distinguishing right from wrong, shaping their own lives, and so on, and that all should be under a set of common responsibilities in their society (e.g. to obey the law) and should enjoy a broad range of similar rights. It is one thing, we might naturally think, to allow a level of economic inequality as a result of competition and an element of luck; it is another to expect someone in a modern society to internalise a sense of her own inferiority, or to act outwardly as if she did. We want a society (don't we?) in which all citizens are entitled and able to stand up for ourselves, and their beliefs and values, with a proper pride. In the absence of something like a theory of divine rights for the aristocracy, or of the sub-humanity of some categories of people, any contrary ideal is untenable. This way of putting it lacks the Kantian ring that sounds throughout Anderson's article, and it may not give her all the foundation for democratic equality that she wants - but I think it gives her all she needs.

Democratic equality as described to this point might seemingly amount to no more than political libertarianism, since libertarians grant human beings equality in something like the same sense, without developing any moral imperative to equalise wealth or constrain economic inequalities. However, Anderson persuasively suggests that more is required than libertarianism is prepared to grant. For example, a society based on democratic equality will not allow relationships of oppression to develop, even if they are freely chosen (for example, if someone willingly sells herself into slavery) or emerge without official backing. Such a society will not allow individuals to become outcasts, or an underclass to develop, no matter how this comes about. (page 35)

Capabilities
Anderson relies on the capability approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum to add more flesh to the conceptual bones of democratic equality (for her exposition, she references Sen's Inequality Reexamined). According to this approach, there are various states of being and doing that constitute a person's welfare and her goals for how she will live her life - e.g. she may want to be physically fit, play soccer, enjoy sex, raise children, and so on. These states can be called "functionings". A person's capabilities are the functionings that she is capable of achieving, given her circumstances and resources. In other words, capabilities measure a person's positive freedom to achieve valued functionings.

As described by Anderson, democratic egalitarians seek to equalise certain capabilities. The question is which capabilities should they focus on. Her answer is those capabilities that are needed (1) to avoid oppressive social relationships and (2) to enable people to function as equals in a democratic society - the distinction between (1) and (2) is fairly subtle, since these negative and positive aspects of democratic equality will often, though not always, demand the same thing. (page 35)

From this starting point, Anderson develops a rich description of the range of capabilities required for each of us if we are to live as equal citizens in a society that lacks oppressive social relations. From what seems at first to be a relatively unambitious conception of social equality and its point, she expounds a detailed agenda for social democracy. This is all to the good. What we seem to need is a theory that will not castigate us morally for any attempt at all to pursue our own economic good in competition with others, but will give due recognition to what we find attractive about movements for equal rights and political efforts to provide a strong socioeconomic safety net, while offering some substantial guidance on public policy.

Importantly, Anderson emphasises that what is required is not identical functionings, or even capabilities, for everyone. What is required is universal access to those capabilities that we each need in order to stand as equals with others in our respective societies. In some cases, this may involve strict equality (as in each of us having one and exactly one vote); in other cases, something different may be appropriate.

How much equality do we need?
This theory leaves the degree of economic equality required within a given society somewhat indeterminate - it will have to be a matter of inquiry just how far economic equality is needed in Society X to achieve the goals of the theory. Once everyone has a fair chance to bring themselves to a certain basic level of wealth, sufficient to obtain a range of important capabilities, including the ability to take part in public activities without shame, it may not matter greatly if some individuals in Society X are at a considerably higher level than most. The important thing is to ensure that this additional wealth cannot be used as a weapon to create oppressive relationships of dominance and subordination.

While the theory of democratic equality is attractive for its mix of idealism and realism, in what seem intuitively to be the right places, it also promises to offer plausible answers to questions about emerging technologies and new social developments. For example, would differential access to genetic enhancement be socially acceptable? Yes, the theory should say, as long as this is not likely to result in oppressive relationships or the kind of inequality among citizens that the theory rejects. (Unfortunately, whether that will happen is a further question, a difficult empirical one, but no political theory ever comes with ready-made, all-things-considered recommendations for every situation to which it might be applied.) Is it morally required for the state to make genetic enhancement available to everyone? Not necessarily - but yes if the point is being reached where this is a practical requirement for participation as an equal citizen (in the general sense described above) in a democratic society.

Implications
An approach based on democratic equality is, I think, compatible with theories that emphasise the need for social cohesion or preservation of the social contract. All these related ways of looking at the issue stress that, on some futuristic scenarios, relations within a society may become strained, or oppressive, or may even begin to break down.

Whether differential access to a new technology, such as genetic enhancement, is likely to cause any of these undesirable social effects requires empirical investigation and a great deal of practical thinking in the absence of clear data. Meanwhile, there is no need for us to rely upon any unrealistic and unjustified theory that requires us to eliminate luck, prohibit all wealth differentials, or rectify cosmic injustice. Such theories outrun the concerns that underlie real-world campaigns for equal rights; the proponents of these theories miss the point of social equality.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Magneto was right - major spoiler warning

I finally saw X-Men 3 the other night and was pleasantly surprised. I love this series (and grew up on the original comics), but was worried about how a new director might handle the climactic third movie. The misgivings were unnecessary - this was a surprisingly tight narrative that seemed to take no time at all, and left me wanting more. The scenes of Magneto levitating and "flying" the Golden Gate Bridge, and of Phoenix as a force of unlimited destructive power, annihilating everything around her, were (literally) awesome.

There is plenty of room for sequels, of course. Charles is apparently not dead after all; Magneto's powers seem to be returning, or just not completely removed (we did see in the first movie that he was able to withstand Rogue's touch to an extent); Phoenix, perhaps, can't be killed; and is this really the last of Cyclops? If the cure is not permanent, and Magneto's resistance to it is not something peculiar to him, where does that leave the other "cured" characters (who happen to include two of my favourite characters in the whole X-Men franchise: Mystique and Rogue)? As in the other two movies, the bad guy, Magneto, has actually achieved his main aim, though not in quite the way he planned and at terrible cost to everyone around him. How will he react to the next major threat to mutants? Roll on X-Men 4, though I gather we'll be seeing a couple of spin-off movies first.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

New semester

The new teaching semester begins on Monday, so I'm currently trying to make sure everything falls into place at my end. I'm only teaching in one subject this semester, but I have responsibility for it as the lecturer and coordinator - it's a first-year level subject in the bioethics program at Monash: CHB1020: Ethics, Genetics and the Law. This has the virtue of combining my philosophical and legal interests, which my Ph.D is also meant to do. I tutored in this subject last year, and it went fine, but it really has to go smoothly this year. :)

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Regulating future biotech

I ended up having a fair bit to say over here.

Rah, rah, Rasputin!




What is Technology Review trying to tell us with its caricature of Aubrey de Grey?

Monday, July 10, 2006

She got me!


Again, it's: Ross, Bev, Dad, Mum, Me. But Jenny caught me clowning around - I didn't expect her to take that shot! I was kinda doing my Neil Gaiman imitation here (sorry Neil!).

Rolling on floor, laughing

I love this bit of philosophical humour.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Scene of triumph


Ole Koksvik poses in the room where he and John Bigelow delivered their co-authored paper at the AAP conference. Come to think of it, this was the same room where I presented my paper. Both were well received, or so it struck me, though I had a pretty small audience. Papers on applied philosophy didn't seem to pull as well as those on such areas as metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language - perhaps because this is a pretty hard core conference for analytic philosophers. I guess people working in political philosophy, philosophy of law, philosophical bioethics, etc., often have their own forums.

I wish I'd been thoughtful enough, or maybe just pushy enough, to take a few more pics. I expect there will be a lot on David Chalmers' website soon, as he seemed to be taking zillions of shots.

Allez!

I'm not usually a great sports fan, but I was thrilled watching the amazingly Amazonian Amelie Mauresmo win Wimbledon last night. I've long thought that she and Marat Safin are the coolest people in top-level sport.

Allez!

Sins and nature

A couple of times at the AAP conference, people thought that I was going to be arguing for some sort of anti-environmentalist position when they became aware that I was attacking the concept of "sinning against nature". Fortunately, it was fairly easy to explain that this was not my point. Reference to the traditional view of homosexuality as a supposed "sin against nature" was a good way of making clear what concepts and emotional responses I am attacking and how I relate them to issues about technology.

Admittedly, my broader position in moral philosophy would, indeed, rule out some radical environmentalist positions, but there is nothing in my position that denies the value of wilderness, ecological systems, or biodiversity. In fact, I do value those things very highly, and am quite happy to have such values incorporated into our moral norms (however, those things are not the same as "nature"). Anyway, it's interesting that, at least for some people, the idea of sinning against nature has begun to mean something rather different from its traditional meaning in, say, the natural law tradition. I'd hate to see these ideas get confused.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Second Life - how close am I getting with my current avatar?




I'm no artist, and the default system for designing avatars has a lot of limitations, but let's have a look. How's this, I wonder, as a caricature cum idealisation? Hmmm, not too bad I think ...

AAP conference


The Australasian Association of Philosophy conference at the Australian National University this past week was one of the most stimulating and enjoyable conferences or conventions, or whatever, that I've been to. Taking place over almost a full five days, it soon began to deliver the timeless feeling that I'd always been there. It was well organised and extraordinarily diverse in range. I was at the conference to take it in as a sociological experience (this was the first time I'd been to this annual event), meet some new people, give support to friends and colleagues, and present a paper on one of my pet themes (the "defying nature" theme - why does this idea persist, and what are the implications?).

I drove up with Ole Koksvik, a fellow grad. student at Monash. Ole is doing his research Masters in philosophy of mind, defending a moderate version of dualism; he's thinking that he might do further graduate work at ANU. Indeed, ANU is one of the institutions where I'd like to work, myself, when I've finished this second PhD that I've taken on. The ANU faculty and its research output are very impressive, and the place would suit my interdisciplinary interests in philosophy and law.

We took my car, but Ole ended up doing slightly more of the driving than I did. I needed to nap briefly during the trip back - I'd stayed awake to 4 am watching Wimbledon on TV, then got up about three hours later to have breakfast and check out. As a result, I was getting pretty tired during one of my turns at the wheel, 100 kilometres south of Albury, and handed over to Ole for awhile (mindful of all those warnings about driver fatigue that dot the Hume Highway). A half hour nap, followed by some fast food a bit later when we pulled into a service centre, revitalised me. It was nice when I finally pulled into Albert Park last night, and to see Jenny again - not to mention Felix!

Even more from Newcastle - Nick and Ben


(Two of) my young nephews - Nick and Ben. Note the evidence in the foreground of Nick's sole foray to date into modelling. I'm not sure his career as a model will be as salubrious as Amanda's, but who can say?

Now, I really must catch up with events in Canberra in my next entry.

Newcastle!


The photos I've been uploading in the last few entries give some impression of our Newcastle trip, I hope, although I didn't end up with pics of everyone we saw. It was all a bit rushed. Jenny and I had less than a week, sandwiched in between an examiner's meeting at Monash and having to get back in time to deal with quite a few things in Melbourne before I could head off almost immediately to the AAP Conference in Canberra (about which more another time). So we were flat out trying to catch up with our families and some of our most dearly loved friends in the limited time we had. To add to the complications, the usually-robust Vicki Coughlan was quite sick with a skin disease that had hit her out of nowhere, while Amanda Pitcairn was in the midst of preparing for a trip to the Maldives ... so we were lucky to see her at all!

Everyone was lovely, of course, and I hope we can catch up with them soon.

Newcastle trip - Jenny's family


Jenny with her sister, Suellen + her Mum and Dad. Newcastle, June 2006.

My family - Newcastle trip


Ross Allen; my sister, Bev; Dad; Mum; me. June, 2006.

Beauty and the beast


Amanda Pitcairn wields the mobile phone as Russell Blackford monsters her - all in good fun, June 2006.

Newcastle trip - Jenny and Amanda


Best girlfriends - Jenny Blackford and Amanda Pitcairn, June 2006.

Newcastle trip - Russ and Amanda


Russell Blackford and Amanda Pitcairn, June 2006.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Nice photo


Rjurik Davidson, Russell Blackford, Jenny Blackford.


Ellen Datlow has posted this cool photo of Jenny and me with Rjurik Davidson here. Click on the link and you'll see that Ellen has a whole lot of great shots from Conflux.