On my way to Paris to attend a computer ethics conference, I had a chance to watch ‘Her’, a movie where the main character falls in love with his own operating system (a software program that functions as a personal assistant). The story is quite straightforward; having broken up with his real life wife, our main character, whose name is Theodore, bought a new operating system that is supposed to talk on a friendly basis with its owner and can develop its talking skills as the owner talks more with it. Later on Theodore develops a full blown romantic relationship with his OS, whose name is ‘Samantha.’ Then Samantha dumps him and he feels pretty bad. (It must be really bad to get dumped by a software program anyway.)

The point I would like to make is that the story tells us quite a lot about the situation of ourselves in the world that is becoming saturated with social media and smart phones. Computers are everywhere; they are in the car, the tv and they will be in the fridge very soon, and they will soon start talking to one another, making the software that controls all these more and more sophisticated. People stay closely to one another, but they don’t talk to one another. Instead each looks at their own smart phones and engage in their private conversation with whomever they happen to find themselves with. This has become a familiar sight, so it is not exactly inconceivable that in the near future people will start having a romantic relationship with their phones, or their computers.


One of the topics that bothers Samantha and Theodore in their relationship is the fact that Samantha does not have a body. So how do you engage in a romantic or sexual relationship with someone who does not have a body? (Note that I start talking about Samantha as ‘someone’ – well, in the move she is really someone, a main character in the story). First they try to imagine it. So we have Theodore lying in his bed with Samantha’s camera and earphone and then they talk and talk, with Samantha urging him to verbalize everything as much as he can (“My hand is on your thigh,” for example – you can imagine these too.) Then Samantha got another idea where she invites a real woman to act as her ‘surrogate’. That is, the live woman will act as Samantha’s own bodily conduit. She is merely lending her body to Samantha and she herself is not involved, or tries not to get involved in any way. But that does not work. So they come back to just Theodore and the camera and earphone.

The point in the movie is that Theodore acts as if he has a real girlfriend. And this is the funny part. Theodore goes on a picnic with Samantha (as a camera and a speaker) together another couple who are his best friends. They have picnics together, with Samantha saying that she enjoys all the views and so on, but while his friend hugs his girlfriend who is of course live and has a body, Theodore has no one to hug, as he can only talk to Samantha. The difference is thus between having a real live body and being in a state where there is only the mind only.

Which is a distinction that philosophers are interested in for a long time. Who are we humans really? Are we our bodies? Or a combination between bodies and minds? Or are we just minds? If we are just minds, then it would be possible to upload our minds on a giant server and then Theodore and Samantha could then be on the same plane so that they could live together happily ever after. But as Susan Schneider argues in her NY Times article, that is not going to happen because Theodore can only make a copy of himself and upload that to the server, but the copy is not the real thing. But I can’t see why there can’t be more than one Theodore. Our feeling that there must be only one might stem from a deep seated illusion about the self. Well, that’s a long story. See also Keith Wiley’s philosophical critique of Schneider’s article, where he argues that Theodore is nothing but the pattern of information that uniquely makes him up. But I won’t pursue the argument more than this. Only I’d like to point out that Wiley might still be wrong to think that there is or can be only one Theodore.

In any case the philosophical argument just shows that the movie is a fascinating one. However, we should not overlook the fact that it is a good movie to watch. It starts out as a romantic comedy (albeit a strange one because we never see the lead actress’s body) but then we have quite a bit of sad drama thrown in. And perhaps the one thing that trumps everything else is that Scarlet Johansson’s voice is so sexy.



ABR Essay Prize 2013

Asian Bioethics Review (ABR) announces its 2013 essay prize contest.   Established in 2008, the purpose of ABR is to publish and encourage scholarship and research in all areas of bioethics, healthcare, medical ethics, medical law and healthcare policy.  Please note: Environmental ethics is not included within ABR’s scope of expertise at present.

We now extend a call for articles, researched, within these topic areas.  The primary purpose is to enhance the knowledge of and enlighten the reader on some aspect of these areas.

Eligibility:  The prize is open to anyone studying (post-secondary school) or working within the field of bioethics.  Priority will be given to papers from within Asia (from Iran to Japan, from Mongolia to New Zealand and includes the Commonwealth of Former Communist Countries).  As one aim of the prize is to give early recognition to outstanding researchers who are beginning a career in healthcare ethics, special consideration will be given to new researchers. Only one paper submission is permitted per person for consideration of the award, but a single paper may have more than one author.

The Article: The article (research paper) shall be original and unpublished, written in English and of no more than 5,000 words, excluding footnotes or endnotes. Papers previously submitted for class assignments or works in progress (such as papers to be delivered at conferences, etc) are encouraged. The article must be typed using a standard font (Times New Roman, Arial, etc) and double-spaced. Do not place the author’s name on the pages of text. Include a cover page that lists the name, mailing address and e-mail address of the author, their college or university, and current status, i.e., researcher, fellow, student (add year), Assistant Professor, etc.

Submission Instructions:  All articles must be received by 1st AUGUST 2013.  No articles will be accepted after this time.

All articles should be sent to:  Sally Campbell at:   sally_barbara_campbell AT nuhs.edu.sg.   This is the preferred format for receiving articles, but they may also be sent by post to Mrs. Sally Campbell, Centre for Biomedical Ethics, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, Clinical Research Centre, #02-01, 10 Medical Drive, Singapore, 117597

For questions, please contact Professor Leo de Castro at:  leonardo_de_castro AT nuhs.edu.sg

Professor de Castro is a member of the judging committee.

The award-winning article will be evaluated by a panel of judges from the International Advisory Committee of ABR, all of whom serve as reviewers for ABR. The panel’s decision will be announced after September 1, 2013.

Judging Criteria:  Primary consideration will be given to the article’s originality and its contribution to new knowledge and insights. Other considerations will be the author’s demonstration of the relevance of the subject to the region, the presentation and the coherence of the argument, the adequacy of the referencing. In the case of a tie, two awards may be given at the discretion of the judges. If no submission is judged to be either appropriate or sufficiently meritorious, ABR reserves the right to make no award.

The Award. The winner will receive a prize of S$500. The winner will be invited to submit the article for publication in the ABR.  The runner up will be awarded a prize of 250SGD.

Jainism at Chula

Invitation for summer course in Jain Philosophy (Wed, 25 April – Sat, 12 May, 2012)

Program: Social Consciousness & Jainism

Buddhism and Jainism have a lot in common as both are contemporary religious of India belonging to the same Sramanik tradition. Both have much to share and learn from each other. Both complement and supplement each other and hence it is imperative that we start this study and dialog to further strengthen the cultural and educational ties between Thailand and India.

This summer program is available exclusively for the faculty, researchers and students who are involved in Buddhist studies, Indian studies, philosophy, religion, South Asian studies and anthropology. Expert faculty from India will conduct the program in English language.

All participants must be affiliated to a recognized university or college preferably. Applicants having demonstrable interest in Jain or Buddhist studies, South Asian studies, religions, philosophy or anthropology are preferred. Reasonably good English language skills (speaking, reading and writing) are essential for all applicants.

Since year 2005, International School for Jain Studies (ISJS) has also been inviting scholars from the field of Religion and Philosophy from various counties including Thailand to study Jain Philosophy in English language in India during the months of June and July each year. Many Thai scholars have already studied intensive summer course at ISSJS during past 4 years (2006-2011).

For more information please download the poster and the application form.

Philosophy and the Contemporary World

The following is a talk I will give at the office of the UNESCO here in Bangkok. Today (November 18) is UNESCO World Philosophy Day, and I was invited to give a talk on this occasion.


Today is a joyous occasion. We are celebrating the World Philosophy Day. Usually philosophers do not receive much recognition from the society in which he or she is a part. So the establishment of World Philosophy Day by the UNESCO is very welcome. And today we are reflecting on the role of philosophy in society. The question is how philosophy is relevant in the contemporary world.

But before we do that let us pause for a moment and think of what philosophy actually is. Philosophy is a strange discipline in that it has always been in crisis. Philosophers have thought for a very long time that there are forces that threaten the very existence of philosophy. Not only are philosophers thinking about this problem nowadays, but they actually thought that philosophy had a precarious existence at best for almost as long as there is philosophy. It is no surprise that lay people tend to think of philosophers as woolly eyed visionary who are deeply impractical and do not fit with the world. The story of Thales immediately comes to one’s mind. As is perhaps well known, Thales, who was credited as the world’s first philosophy, thought that water was the key ingredient in all things. According to the story, one day Thales was walking, but his eyes were fixed on the heaven. As he did not see what was directly in front of him, he fell down a well while he was walking and watching the starts at the same time. Philosophers today are scarcely better than Thales in this regard.

So we are back to the question. Being thought to be a highly impractical subject, when then is philosophy? This is not an easy question to answer, and in fact philosophers have grappled with this question for a long time. One thing we can be rather certain is this: Philosophy is not a professional discipline in the same way as medicine or law is. Doctors and lawyers are very practical people; they know exactly what they are doing and what results get from that. But what about the philosopher?

Medicine and law become practical by answering to the immediate needs of the people, namely their sickness and their disputes with their neighbors. Philosophy, on the other hand, does not answer such immediate needs. The basic question of philosophy, one that also preoccupied Thales, is: What is the basic constitution of reality? Thales’ answer is only the beginning. One might think instead that this question is a scientific one, and physicists are better equipped than philosophers to provide an answer. Perhaps it is so, but the “basic constitution” here goes much deeper than the typical physical science would have it. In the views of some philosophers, the basic constitution of reality is not material at all. On the contrary reality as we perceive it is made up entirely by the mind. The whole reality is but a projection of some mind and most of us think of it instead as “hard rock.” This is something no physicist has tackled seriously yet.

So philosophy is a kind of asking questions and searching for answers, where the questions are very general, pointing to the deep seated desire of us human beings to look for ultimate meaning behind all things. Another philosopher, Martin Heidegger, asks a very poignant question: Why is it that there is something rather than nothing? This question points directly at our place in the world, our own reflective, meaning-finding characteristic. To ask this question and other philosophical questions is the predicament of us reflective human beings.

So we can say that philosophy is a kind of activity consisting of asking very general question and searching for answers. Since the questions are very general, answers are not easy to be found. It is understandable, then, that philosophers always disagree with one another. I think this is the most visible character of philosophy in the eyes of the general public. This is also reinforced by the way philosophy is taught in colleges. Teachers today almost always refrain from giving their own viewpoints and their own answers to philosophical questions, preferring instead to let the students believe that there are “no right or wrong answers” in philosophy. I myself, I have to admit, am also guilty of this. But to let people think that philosophy has no right or wrong answers is very dangerous to the health of philosophy, and could be the single most devastating reason for society to scrap all of philosophy to the junkyard of history.

Philosophers in ancient times certainly did not believe that philosophy admitted of no right or wrong answers. All of them believed that their views were correct, and each was at pain to refute the others’ argument. Perhaps teachers of philosophy should try to bring back this ancient passion of firmly believing that one’s version is “the truth” back to our classrooms. In fact, of all of the famous philosophers in the pantheon, not a single one actually believed that philosophy admits of no right or wrong answers.

So how could one account for the fact that there is no question in philosophy that has been answered definitively so that there is no need for any search for answer any longer? This is the predicament of philosophy as mentioned earlier. But the fact that all previous attempts to provide definitive answers in philosophy have failed should not lead us to conclude that there are no rights or wrong answers.We need to believe that there are right and wrong answers; otherwise philosophy will be nothing more than hot air.

This last point leads us back to our initial question. Philosophy’s being a very general discipline that asks foundational questions, and its method of finding answers through debates and discussions, makes it highly relevant in today’s world. Asking and searching for answers to very general questions not only helps us gain a bird’s eye view so that we can comprehend things better, it is also practical because it trains us to be able to imagine, to see things which are not there at the moment. Furthermore, debates and discussions encouraged by philosophy helps students to grasp the point or the main idea of talks and passages quickly and to hone one’s reasoning skills. This can be useful, if anything, in the courtroom. In fact many lawyers have had their first training as a philosopher.

So what, then, is philosophy? It’s an attempt by us human beings to find meanings in the world, deep meanings, superficial meanings, all of them. The ancient character of philosophy of asking very general questions and searching for answers through debates and discussions makes it relevant in today’s world. It is all the more so when no other disciplines care to do this important task, appearing to let philosophy take it up, which we philosophers should not let pass by. And on the World Philosophy Day, we are now reflective and re-emphasize this important mission of philosophy when it serves us all in society.

Bioethical Viewpoints: East and West

I am now attending the 11th Asian Bioethics Conference in Singapore. This is a grueling conference where all the papers are presented one after another in one big room from 8:20 am to almost 8 pm. So let’s see what will happen. Four days before this conference there was a bigger one, the World Congress of Bioethics.

The themes of both conferences focused on cultural perspectives on bioethical issues. During the World Congress there was a panel of no fewer than eight panelists who came together to discuss whether issues in bioethics are universal and culturally relative. For example, there has been an ongoing debate whether issues in bioethics, such as conducting research on human subjects, do admit themselves of cultural variety. In other words, since bioethics is a normative discipline, there is the problem whether those norms transcend cultures or are they restricted to the specifics of cultures wherein the norms take place. In conducting research on human subjects, it is well known that the researchers need to obtain signed informed consent forms from the participants (or subjects). In most cases the consent from the concerned individual is enough. The consent is an agreement between the participant and the researcher only. But in some other cases that is not enough. The research needs also to obtain consent of the community leader in order for them to conduct research on individuals within the community. This happens when researchers go to a remote village and contact individuals there directly. This violates a norm of the village itself, which views itself as a close knit community where decisions needs to be made collectively or through the village leader. Hence the need to obtain consent from the leader in addition to that of the individual herself.

This has generated a lot of debates among bioethicists. Key to the debate is the question of what justifies the need for community consent and also what justifies the need for individual consent in the first place. This is where philosophy can be very useful. But what happens is that when philosophers deal with these issues of justification, they have found that different cultures look at the issue differently. One culture may look at the requirement of community consent to be superfluous, or they may even look at this as an encroachment upon the autonomy of the individuals themselves. If somebody can make a decision about your body on your behalf, then you do not have much of control of yourself to begin with. On the other hand, another culture may believe that the addition of the judgment and decision making by the village leader is necessary, because the individual herself is not an isolated entity existing apart from others. The community is a self-subsisting entity, of which the individual is a part. For an individual to make a decision, such as to allow the researcher to perform research on her body, would mean that the individual is somehow cut off from the community, since the decision comes from herself alone. Furthermore, in real settings the individual may feel that she needs to consult the leader, who speaks for the whole community because she defers to the leader’s wisdom on this kind of thing.

Bioethics have been debating this issue for quite some time. At issue, of course, is the question whether community consent is justified. According to some ethical system, this is not necessary because the individual should control her own destiny and for others to decide things for her would be to limit her freedom and autonomy. But according to another system, this is justified because the individual’s ontological status is different. Instead of being fully autonomous, the individual in this system is only part of her own community.

How can we resolve this issue? The debates surrounding cultural perspectives on bioethics are actually about whether judgments in bioethics are universal and culture-transcendent, or whether they are culture-specific. In addition, the debate is also about “Eastern” and “Western” perspectives. The two kinds of debate are not exactly the same (although many bioethics have always tended to conflate the two). Furthermore, the debate can also be between the East and the West. These need to be spelled out clearly. The first kind of debate is between those who believe that ethical norms are universal and those who do not believe that. The second kind is between those who believe that the Western perspective is universal, and all other perspectives outside of the West are wrong (this also includes those who believe that only the Eastern perspective is right — they may differ about who is right, but they agree that among the two views, at least one must be true). The third kind, moreover, is a straightforward debate between the two perspectives. Instead of talking about “East” or “West,” those who enter the third kind of debate focus their attention on the concrete issues at hand, such as how to obtain informed consent from participants, or the best policy for mother surrogacy, and so on. Representatives from the eastern and western cultures can enter the debate of the third kind without realizing that they come from different cultures.

If this is the case, then we need to be clear first at what level the debate about cultural perspectives on bioethics is. It seems to be that most debates are of the second kind. That is, debates as to which system is universal. Most of the World Congress panelists believed that their judgments are universal and should be accepted and enforced by all cultures. In fact we need to take this position, because if we did not–if we believed instead that validity of arguments depend on where you are from, then there is no point in having intercultural discussion at all. So the standard of good argument needs to transcend cultures.

I think what is lacking in these debates about cultural perspectives is a kind of argument aiming at showing that judgment stemming from a non-western culture is a universal one that should be accepted by all bioethicists. For example, the view that the individual is embedded within the web of social and cultural relations and actually depends on the web for her being should be accepted universally, because it will help solve a lot of problems that we are facing globally in bioethics. It will emphasize he importance of compassion and sympathy, for example, but unfortunately this was not mentioned much at all during these meetings.

Can a Buddhist be a Skeptic?

Georges Dreyfus came to Chulalongkorn University again for the third time, and this time he gave a public talk on “Can a Buddhist be a Skeptic?” The talk was really interesting and touched upon some of the very difficult issues in Buddhist philosophy. He started by recounting the tenet found in the Madhyamika system, especially as propounded by Nagarjuna. According to the Madhayamika, a thing does not have its own ‘inherent characteristic,’ which defines what it is to be that thing and none other. Thus Madhyamika is contrasted with a branch of Indian philosophy that asserts that there is an inherent characteristic in everything that makes it the caase that that thing is what it is. One might compare this to the Aristotelian essence — whatever that gives a thing its defining characteristic. Thus a chair, according to this view, is a chair because it possesses something called ‘chairness.’ By virtue of possessing the chairness a chair is a chair and not, say, a table.

For Nagarjuna that is unacceptable. In his Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika), he presents a barrage of arguments intending to show that no thing whatsoever possesses this inherent characteristic. However, that does not mean that a thing can be anything else. It means rather than a thing is what it is, for example a chair, only through its being related to other things and through its being an extension or instances of concepts. In short, a thing is what it is simply because it is recognized that way. A chair is a chair because people sit on it and call it a ‘chair.’

A consequence of this is that, ultimately speaking, for Nagarjuna it does not make sense to say of any thing that it exists. On the other hand it also does not make sense to say that it does not exist. The chair in a sense does not exist because it lacks any inherent characteristic (the Sanskrit term for this is svabhava). However, to say that it does not exist does not make sense either because the chair is there. Nagarjuna goes on to say that it does not make sense to say that it both exists and does not exist, because to say that would presuppose that there is something the existence and non-existence of which is being asserted. Furthermore, to say that a thing neither exists nor does not exist does not make much sense either for the same reason.

This is known as the tetralemma. The idea is to exhause any and all possibility of saying anything about any object whatsoever. If it does not make sense to say anything in the four sides of the tetralemma, then it is clear that it does not make sense to say anything of anything at all. For example, Nagarjuna says somewhere in the Fundamental Verses that it cannot be said that the Tathagata (the Thus-gone, hence the Buddha) exists, does not exist, both exists and does not exist, and neither exists nor does not exist.

The  tetralemma has been a subject of intense interpretation. Dreyfus cited an example of a relatively obscure Tibetan translator and philosopher, Patrap Nyima Drak (I have to look up whether this is correct), who asserted that what the tetralemma says is true literally. Other scholars, such as Chandrakirti himself and Tsong Khapa, shied away from asserting baldly that the tetralemma is true literally. For them to do so is very close to being irrational, for it means that one can’t say anything of anything at all. If that is so, then why is one saying anything at all? Why don’t keep quiet all the time?

Dreyfus said that for Patrap, he held that no statement could be held and believed, because ultimately speaking any statement at all falls into one leg of the tetralemma and is thus untenable. So Dreyfus compared his position to that of ancient skepticism, also known as Pyrrhonism. According to Pyrrhonism it is not rational to hold any belief. All statements are ‘suspended’ because no statement ever acquires enough evidence to support it.

Nagarjuna himself also could be interpreted as supporting this view in a way, since he says at the very last stanza of the Fundamental Verses that in the end the goal of the Buddhist philosophy is to “relinquish all views.” So in a way this is not a philosophy at all, if you hold that philosophy is nothing but putting out words and more words. Since nothing can be asserted in any way of anything, then according to Patrap the only course left is to suspend any and all judgments. (But is this philosophy?)

So this comes to Dreyfus’s own question at the beginning. Can a Buddhist be a skeptic? Yes, because at least one Buddhist, Patrap Nyima Drak, was a skeptic. But is this a valid position to hold in Buddhist philosophy? It can be useful as a guide for practicing, and of course in Buddhism this is in the end what counts.

This leads to a very difficult problem for Buddhism. On the one hand, if you can’t defend any position at all, then how can you show that any of the teachings of the Buddha is true? How can one teach Buddhism to anybody? There ae a number of Buddhist teachings thatmany Buddhists take to be true, such as the law of karma, the Four Noble Truths, and so on. If a Buddhist can be a skeptic, then how can one come to believe the law of karma or the Four Noble Truths, which are the central teaching of Buddhism?

However, the advantage of Patrap’s standpoint (paradoxical again because the skeptic has no standpoint) is that it leads us to non-attachment even of doctrines and teachings. We realize that in the end these are only words and language, and being attached to them would only lead to suffering and further wandering in samsara, even though these words are the Buddha’s. The key is to ‘relinquish all views.’

So what gives? We have to wean ourselves from the belief that there is one true, correct version of things that we can arrive at. Language does not represent reality as it really is. Language is only a tool. The tetralemma shows that no matter how much we try, language still deceives us. The point is to get at reality without language. So practice is important, but philosophy and teaching the Dharma is important too. Otherwise how can we ever come to understand all this?

You can listen to Dreyfus’ talk right here on the podcast of the Center for Ethics of Science and Technology and the Thousand Stars Foundation.