By Richard Lofthouse
Oxonian books reaching us this past month are vast in scope and as deep as the ocean in trying to grapple with what it means to be alive in the twenty-first century.
First up is Luciano Floridi’s The Fourth Revolution. Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at Oxford — you can see the job title struggling to keep pace with the subject — it takes no imagination on the part of a reader to see that philosophy must absorb urgently the implications for humans of 4G networks, smart phones and satellites. What does it all mean? Floridi apologises early on for the appearance of jargon-like vocabulary by citing Friedrich Waismann (1896-1959) and his defence of needing new words for new realities. This is an important concession for the whole book because even the subtitle, ‘How the Infosphere is Reshaping Reality’, might otherwise sound a bit bland. That would be unfair. We might be told that we are inforgs— that is, ‘informational organisms’ — on page 94, but the term arises from our new technological reality, as Floridi sees it. The book is notably for non-specialists, but is fantastic in scope, proposing nothing less than new philosophies of time, nature and anthropology. Floridi is vividly trying to connect philosophy with technology in order to disclose the meaning of our era to us, rather than leaving it fifty years so a future historian can look back. Of course that’s interesting.
Floridi’s artificial agents “that are not intelligent like us, but... can easily outsmart us...” are an almost perfect cue for Nick Bostrom’s entirely formidable Superintelligence. Bostrom is Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford and founding director of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and has a background in physics, computational neuroscience, and mathematical logic. If this reviewer has understood correctly, artificial intelligence may become self-improving to the degree that some sort of agent could decide to eliminate humans at some point in the future. It sounds sinister, but we’re all familiar with the recent financial crisis and the concept of interconnected systems melting down simultaneously. It’s a profound disservice to Bostrom to leave it at that, but the book is fascinating – and equally demanding to a reader not familiar with whole brain emulation, oracles and singletons. If I am not mistaken, it takes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and says, ‘ actually, this is coming to bear on humanity; what are we going to do?’
Next is Growing Up Muslim, which presents fourteen personal essays by college-age American Muslims and their parents. One of the editors, Eboo Patel, holds an Oxford DPhil in the Sociology of Religion. It is almost deliciously easy terrain after Bostrom and, cumulatively, the narratives successfully convey the peculiar tensions of being both Muslim and American in the extended aftershadow of 9/11.
Staying with religion for a moment is Tim Cawkwell’s (Christ Church, 1966) second edition of his work The Filmgoer’s Guide to God. Slightly mistitled, it’s not a guide to God as such and isn’t peddling any religion except a love of film. It simply explores the enormous quantity of ‘spilt religion’ in films, both religious themes in otherwise secular films as well as overtly religious themes. In lots of ways Cawkwell lays bare the fundamentally redemptive quality of numerous film scripts, but the main point is that he is a film buff’s film buff and exhibits encyclopedic knowledge of directing and making films. In taking the divine angle, he’s addressed one of the great lacunas of the stock and trade film critic. The commentary dives straight in, however: there are so many films here that you won’t have seen that it almost feels like an education simply to be reminded that there are such deep traditions of non-Hollywood film making. Soviet greats like Andrei Tarkovsky, you will know. But how well do you know his acolytes Sokurov and Zvyagintsev?
Last and by no means least is Michael Kellogg’s The Roman Search for Wisdom. Kellogg (St Catherine’s, 1977) studied philosophy at Oxford and went on to a legal career. He has that great gift of great educators, easy language to explain difficult material, but for my money also a terrific enthusiasm for his material. In this instance he takes the received view that the Romans were essentially stuck imitating the Greeks and makes it a point of departure for a terrific survey that gets you up close to poets such as Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid; dramatists such as Seneca and historians such as Livy and Tacitus. The author has obviously been at his desk hammer and tongs: his first book in 2010 was Three Questions We Never Stop Asking, in which he renewed our sense of the meaning of philosophy (What can I know? What may I hope? What ought I to do?). His second work considered The Greek Search for Wisdom, and as such is the perfect accompaniment to this latest contribution on the Romans.
Image by Katherine Hodgson under Creative Commons license.