Tuesday, September 22, 2009

William P. Alston (1921-2009)

Bill Alston died last week. That probably means very little to most readers, but if you're among those who have done some reading in the philosophy of religion and/or epistemology you've probably encountered Alston's name and works more than once. He was a giant among contemporary philosophers, and he was also, by all accounts, a wonderful man.

Tom Senor shares some personal memories of Alston at Prosblogion, and what he tells us about him might serve as a model and inspiration for any student who hopes one day to be a teacher. Alston exemplified, in Senor's account, everything that good teachers should be.

Jeremy Pierce also offers some fine reminiscences of Professor Alston here. Anyone interested in being familiar with modern philosophy should be familiar with Bill Alston and reading these two pieces is an excellent step in that direction.


Hope for Spinal Cord Injury Victims

In a stunning development scientists have been able to restore near-normal mobility to rats whose spinal cords have been severed from their brains. Evidently, tissue in the spinal cord is capable of taking over some of the functions of the brain:

Paralysed rats whose spinal cords had been severed from their brains were made to run again using a technique that scientists say can work for people, according to a study released Sunday.

Consistent electrical stimulation and drugs enabled the rats to walk on their hind legs on a treadmill -- bearing the full weight of the body -- within a week of being paralysed.

With the addition of physical therapy, the rodents were able after several weeks to walk and run without stumbling for up to 30 minutes, reported the study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Remarkably, the animals could adjust their movements in response to stimuli despite the lack of signals to and from the brain: when the treadmill was reversed, for example, the rats walked backwards.

"This means that the spinal network is almost capable of cognitive processing," explained Gregoire Courtine, a professor at Zurich University.

"It can understand that the external world is changing, and interpret this information to modify the way it activates muscle," he told AFP by phone.

Earlier studies had shown that nerve networks in the spinal cord can produce limited motion in the muscles independent of the brain or sensory organs. But this is the first time that researchers have been able to restore normal or nearly normal functions.

The article concludes by pointing out that there's no reason why the same procedures couldn't work in human beings. This would be a marvelous gift to the quarter of a million people in the U.S. who have suffered severe spinal cord injury. Nearly half of all spinal cord injuries are caused by automobile accidents, and more than half of these occur among young people between 16 and 30 years old. Perhaps there is hope for these tragic cases.


Tolstoy Or Dostoyevsky

Lovers of Russian literature will enjoy the essay by David Hart at First Things in which he compares the genius of Dostoyevsky to the genius of Tolstoy. I've read both but studied neither and am in no position to pronounce upon the question of which is superior, as Hart does. I will say, though, that in all my admittedly inadequate reading of the great novelists there are few passages I have come across as powerful and mesmerizing as Dostoyevsky's chapter four and five of Book Five of The Brothers Karamazov. In chapter four, titled Rebellion Dostoyevsky presents the problem of theodicy in perhaps its most powerful form in all of literature. Theodicy is the attempt to explain how one can believe in God in the face of the world's staggering evil.

In chapter five, titled The Grand Inquisitor, Dostoyevsky relates his famous parable of Christ's return to Spain at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. In the parable, Christ is actually thrown in prison, not by unbelievers, but by a Cardinal of the Church. What's more surprising, perhaps, is that the rationale the Cardinal gives for this incredible act seems wholly plausible. One can imagine such a thing happening.

Both of these chapters are dialogues between the devout Alyosha and his atheistic brother Ivan. It's Ivan who carries the dialogue, challenging his beloved brother, an orthodox monk, to respond. The two chapters are unequalled, at least in my experience, by anything else in literature. They can be read by themselves without reading the rest of the book, but I commend the entire novel to anyone who has the time. It'll stay with you for the rest of your life and the two chapters I've mentioned will compel you to think about the problem of evil more deeply, perhaps, than you ever did before.

I also recommend Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment for its portrayal of a man named Raskolnikov who tries to live consistently as a Nietzschean moral nihilist. The man who thinks himself "beyond good and evil" (the title of Nietzsche's book on the subject), as does the otherwise likeable Raskolnikov, becomes a moral monster, who can't live even with himself. His amorality, his view of himself as a Nietzschean superman, leads to insanity. Dostoyevsky's treatment of this theme is the best I've ever read.

Nevertheless, Hart thinks Tolstoy is superior and perhaps he is, but I fell in love with Dostoyevsky as a young man and recommend him every chance I get.