In the beginning

Cosmology attempts to understand the origin and structure of everything. Where is cosmology headed today? Ross Anderson asks: “Cosmology has been on a long, hot streak, racking up one imaginative and scientific triumph after another. Is it over?” From ancient Greece to the modern world, philosophy played a big part in developing conceptions of the cosmos. “To create a cosmos, a story that encompasses the origins and ultimate fate of all that is, you have to leave established science behind. You have to face down the cold void of the unknown. Philosophers are always in a dogfight to prove their utility to society, but this is something they do well.” And if the physicists working on cosmology today are facing a creative crisis, philosophical methods and distinctions may help. Indeed, Paul Steinhardt, the director of the Princeton Center for Theoretical Sciences, says, “I wish the philosophers would get involved.”

Kant confusion

Michael Rosen’s review of Onora O’Neill’s new book on Kantian ethics is a very nice introduction to Kant’s ethics, including some of the difficulties in interpreting and applying Kantian ethics. “In the extended chess tournament of the secondary literature [about Kant’s ethics], almost every conceivable analysis of the Groundwork has been tried out over the past two centuries, yet all have been found wanting in some way or other.”

Lying to Nazis

Nazis, lies, and videotape. Is it morally permitted to lie to Nazis today to obtain information for the historical record about the Holocaust? “Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah consists in large part of an extensive interview with former SS-Unterscharfuhrer Franz Suchomel who worked at the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps. Lanzmann told him that the interview will be taped but the tape will not be released for thirty years due to the sensitivity of its content. In addition Lanzmann filmed the interview with a secret camera secreted in a briefcase.”

Dignity’s due

Why are philosophers invoking the notion of human dignity to revitalize theories of political ethics? Samuel Moyn’s review of two new books about human dignity outlines a history of the concept of human dignity, including Kant’s role in redefining the idea. “One philosopher, however, the German Enlightenment sage Immanuel Kant, thought about human distinction precisely in terms of dignity—namely, the priceless worth conferred on us by our freedom to choose. … Kant insisted that man’s ‘rational nature’—our ability to set ends—makes every human life of highest value, and indeed provides the basis of all value in the world.”

The review goes out to show the tension between the deontological idea of respect for human dignity and the utilitarian value of humans caring about the welfare of others : “Today, human dignity is a principle chiefly for those who admire judges and want them to have the power to check the state in the name of basic humanitarian values. Its currency is a sign that our morality has been redefined around the worst that can transpire in history rather than some better order that could be achieved through political contest and struggle. A consensus about dignity may have become deep enough for us to insist that the state not torture, but it has proved far less helpful when some of us insist that our fellow humans care about one another’s broader welfare or collective emancipation. Isn’t that undignified?”

Examined lives

What it means to lead a good life. A. C. Grayling’s review of James Miller’s Examined Lives. “His conclusion is a negative one: the combination of wisdom, self-understanding, and self-possession that Socrates’s successors took to be the gold standard for the philosophical life proved impossible for most of them to attain, and, in some cases, what they preached and what they practised fell widely apart.” Sarah Bakewell’s review in New York Times.