Monday, December 12, 2016

Science is not the only way to know things: a rebuttal to Lawrence Krauss

Epistemological naturalism, otherwise known as scientism, is the view which states that science is the source of all knowledge. To assess the merits of the view, one must get clear on what one means by science as well as what one means by knowledge. More than just an exercise in nitpicking, the task of sorting out adequate definitions is important to making advances in philosophical debates. In this essay, I will target some recent philosophical claims advanced by the physicist Lawrence Krauss and argue that he defends a view which understands science too broadly, and knowledge too restrictively. Krauss’s claims are not merely semantic; they are controversial claims about the nature of science and knowledge, claims that have been widely discussed and examined by both philosophers of science and epistemologists.

Krauss is a strong proponent of two closely related theories of knowledge; empiricism and scientism. Empiricism states that sense experience is the source of all knowledge, whereas scientism states that science is the sole source of knowing. While these two views are closely related, one could be an empiricist without endorsing scientism and vice versa. In a series of recent debates and discussions, Krauss has made a number of philosophical claims with little to no argumentative support. Among several others, Krauss has stated that “There are no such thing as non-empirical facts” and that “science is the sole source of knowing”. One might argue that Krauss's statements on these issues should not be taken as representative of his actual views. It's possible that Krauss might come to recognize that many of his statements were sloppy or mistaken, and that he actually holds views that are much more plausible. I don't buy this. Krauss has been very consistent in how he answers questions about knowledge and science over the years. His recent statements should, therefore, be taken to express views he sincerely believes. Furthermore, his statements about the nature of science and philosophy have a wide audience. He has written several popular books and has appeared in dozens of public debates and discussions with scientists and philosophers like. As a theoretical physicist, Krauss rightly recognizes the importance and usefulness of doing science, but I think he gets several things seriously wrong when he starts talking about knowledge and how the practice of science should be defined. 

For instance, take Krauss’s definition of science; “rational thought applied to empirical evidence”. Empirical evidence is clearly important for doing science, and so is rational thought, but science is not the only discipline that meets this description. For instance, most contemporary philosophers would be scientists under Krauss’s definition. One might object by saying that his definition is too broad as it captures many other academic disciplines thought to be distinct from science. But the vagueness of the definition also captures countless other forms of activities and practices. If we accept his definition, plumbers are regularly doing science because they need to make observations about pipes and faucets and make rational decisions while troubleshooting problems. Artists would also be doing a lot of science because they need to rely upon sense experience and rational thought to determine how they are going to create their artwork. In Krauss's own words, "we all do science every single day". Such consequences demonstrate the inadequacy of his definition. After all, a good definition should not be open to an endless number of counter examples. An easy way to remedy this problem would be to give a much more specific and accurate set of conditions for what 'science' is. 

If one understands Krauss to be stipulating a definition, then his claim is trivial. One could just as easily stipulate that philosophy should be defined as the exercise of critical thinking or careful reflection. Since we need to think and reason about what we know, philosophy is indispensable for knowing things about the world. Therefore, philosophy is the source of all knowledge. But I take it that these disagreements are not merely semantic, but a disagreement about what ‘science’ actually is. Like in his recent book on how the universe came from “nothing”, Krauss illegitimately defines his terms and then (ironically) accuses his critics of just playing with semantics. Playing with semantics to reach a philosophical conclusion happens to be a common trend amongst scientists writing popular books lately (Harris 2011, Krauss 2012, Wilson 2014).

With the difficulties facing Krauss’s definition of science, it is unsurprising to find that his claims about knowledge are subject to many of the same criticisms. Krauss seems to think of the activity of doing science as the source of knowledge. But science, understood as a complex intellectual activity, can be broken down into more basic components. When epistemologists talk about sources of knowledge, they usually have in mind things like introspection, memory, perception, reasoning, and testimony. Scientific knowledge is comprised of a complex combination of all of these. 

Scientists rely upon their perceptual faculties when they make observations of the world. They use reason to make inferences and deductions about what they’ve observed. And they frequently rely upon the testimony of their colleagues and scientists of previous generations. Once one realizes that knowledge can be derived by more basic sources (than scientific investigation) it is easy to see why countless instances of knowledge that are by no means scientific. Here are five examples:

v  1: I know whether I am experiencing pain, hunger or thirst (via introspection).
v  2: I know that I turned off my television set before I headed out to the store (via memory).
v  3: I know that my good friend recently got engaged (via testimony).
v  4: I know that “There are an infinite amount of prime numbers” (mathematical reasoning).
v  5: I know that it is wrong to torture children for fun (moral reasoning)

In considering such examples, Krauss would likely point out that they all involve sense experiences, to some degree, providing good support for his belief in empiricism. The problem here is that Krauss misunderstands the debate between empiricism and its opposing view, rationalism. Rationalism states that you can come to know certain things are true through reasoning. Rationalists do not think that you can conduct reasoning without having experiences (e.g. introspection). That would be absurd. They are claiming that the warrant or justification for believing certain propositions comes from the chains of reasoning themselves, rather than something you have to experience or observe. For instance, take logic and math. If you know that Tom is a bachelor, you can come to know that Tom is an unmarried man. To know this, you don’t need to go out and do an investigation of Tom or look at statistics on bachelors. It’s a conclusion that you can come to know just by thinking about the meaning of the concept ‘bachelor’. Tellingly, Krauss disagrees (timestamp: 20:50). He thinks one needs to look out at the world to see whether all bachelors are in fact married. We can observe that all bachelors are actually unmarried men, therefore, it is empirical evidence, that grounds that fact. I will say more on why this is deeply confused later.

Similarly, with mathematics, you just have to sit back and reflect upon the nature of ‘prime numbers’ and ‘infinity’ in order to work out why it is true that 'there is no largest prime'. To make the point more finely, if experience was what really gave you the truth of mathematical propositions, then you could encounter things in the world that might falsify basic mathematical truths like “2+2=4”. Strangely, Krauss, in misunderstanding empiricism, bites an unnecessary bullet on this point (1). In conversation with Peter Singer, Krauss has stated that if you were to encounter a situation where, say, two pairs of apples are put into an empty box, to yield five apples, you would have grounds for thinking that 2+2=5. Singer (rightly!) says that the rational thing to do in such a situation would be to assume that some kind of magic trick was performed, rather than to revise your mathematical beliefs. Your experience of the world has nothing to say about the answers to mathematical equations or basic logic questions.

The irrelevance of empirical evidence to fields that deal largely in the abstract explains why mathematicians and logicians have made great progress with just pencils and paper. (Side note: I tend to think that philosophers occupy a kind of middle ground between math/logic and science. Some are interested in questions where empirical evidence is mostly irrelevant (e.g. metaethics) while others, like myself, are interested in issues (e.g. how the mind works) that are intimately connected with scientific investigations.)

One might argue that since facts about mathematics and logic aren’t about the physical world, they aren’t bona fide facts. They’re just relations of ideas or conceptual truths. This is what some empiricists, such as David Hume, argued. But why believe that facts have to be about the physical world? What makes propositions about the physical world privileged? Is there a sense of objectivity that comes with science that is not realized in mathematics or logic? If so, what exactly is the relevant difference between claims about the world and claims about formal systems? A possible answer would involve appealing to yet another philosophical view, scientific realism. Unlike in mathematics or logic, the entities and postulates described by scientific theories are objectively real, independent of human thought. Mathematics and logic are just useful human inventions and do not bear on claims of truth. Judging by what Krauss has said about the nature of science, he strikes me as an ardent scientific realist. For instance, Krauss has stated “It is nature that determines what facts are, not people” (my emphasis).

While I do not have the space to defend such claims, I want to say that any proposition—a statement that is either true or false—is a candidate for knowledge, and that a fact is to be understood as a proposition that is true (e.g. 2+2=4). Therefore, there can be facts and knowledge about mathematics, logic, and perhaps even morality and metaphysics. In a future post, I will try and grapple with some of the deeper questions raised in these closing sections. Specifically, I will discuss scientific realism and determine whether or not the view is strong enough to justify claims regarding science as a privileged epistemic standpoint. 

Perhaps the take away message from Krauss's philosophical ventures is that he nicely illustrates how not to do philosophy, and demonstrates the need for philosophical rigor and understanding. Philosophy has applications not only within domains of study that are mostly nonempirical (e.g. ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics), but for both doing and reflecting upon science. As the American philosopher Daniel Dennett has aptly put it,

“There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination." (Dennett 1996)

Works cited:

  • Dennett, D. C. (1996). Darwin's dangerous idea: Evolution and the meanings of life. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Harris, S. (2011). The moral landscape: How science can determine human values. Simon and Schuster.
  • Krauss, L. M. (2012). A universe from nothing. Simon and Schuster.
  • Wilson, E. O. (2014). The meaning of human existence. WW Norton & Company.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Applied critical thinking: Expert testimony

We often take the testimony of experts for granted. When reading the newspaper or watching a documentary program, it seems reasonable to accept certain claims, provided that they are stated by individuals who have the right sort of credentials. But for areas of genuine controversy, it would be unwise to just accept expert testimony at face value. If we are to take sides in an area of controversy, we ought to be able to explain why a given expert is right and why others who disagree are wrong. There are plenty of instances where experts strongly disagree. For instance, there are doctors who believe acupuncture is an effective treatment for muscuoskeletal pain, and others who believe it doesn’t work, nothing more than an elaborate placebo. In such cases, it might not be obvious whose testimony we ought to trust, especially if one knows little to nothing about medicine. Figuring out who to trust can be complicated and will likely take some time. Through personal experience, I have encountered many friends and family who are disposed to throw their hands up in the air whenever areas of controversy are brought up. How can we—as nonexperts—ever decide who is telling the truth? How can we know? Instead of adopting agnosticism regarding all areas of controversy, most of us, in practice, do listen to some experts and ignore others. For instance, we are more likely to accept the testimony and advice of experts who share our own views. Instead of trying to confirm the beliefs we already hold, or engage in wishful thinking, we ought to critically evaluate competing expert testimony to the best of our ability. In what follows, I will expand upon a proposal developed by the philosopher Alvin Goldman, aimed to help one decide which experts to trust.

First step: Sift out the pseudoexperts
Before discussing the problem of how to choose between experts, we need to determine who has expertise in the first place. The thought is that once we eliminate all of the phony experts, we can move on to the harder questions of how to decide between the genuine experts. Perhaps a sufficient condition for being an expert in some domain of study would be the possession of an advanced degree—in the relevant field—awarded by a recognized academic institution. For instance, an expert in physics would be expected to have a PhD in physics. However, the knowledge set of your typical PhD is likely to be highly specialized. For instance, a scientist with a PhD in physics may be an expert regarding particle physics, but know very little about astrophysics or applied physics. In some cases, it may be unclear which area of study is the most relevant to the issue at hand. Here’s one example. For dietary advice, one might consider a nutritionist to be the most relevant authority to consult. While nutritionists might know a fair amount about dieting and nutrition, a better source would be a registered dietician. Dieticians tend to have much more training in science and medicine than a nutritionist, and have to pass a comprehensive exam to become certified. Overall, they are more qualified to be making judgments about dietary claims than nutritionists. Therefore, with regard to claims about dieting, the relevant experts are dieticians, not nutritionists. Individuals who purport to be experts on certain matters, but whom lack the relevant qualifications and/or training should raise red flags. In summary, before assessing expert testimony, one must try to answer the following questions:

What does X’s expertise consist in?
Is X’s expertise in any way relevant to the issue at hand?

Once one establishes that they have found a genuine expert and more importantly, one whose expertise is relevant to the question at hand, one must determine whether or not this expert is trustworthy. Are there reasons to doubt his or her testimony?

Steps for analyzing the testimony of true experts

It can be unhelpful to look at the testimony of one expert in isolation. From the point of view of a layperson (nonexpert) most experts tend to be highly persuasive. To get a better sense as to how reliable their testimony is, try to find an expert who disagrees with them, preferably, an expert that has had comparable training and experience. After finding two experts that disagree, it’s time to compare what each of them has to say. The philosopher Alvin Goldman proposes five ways to determine which expert is more trustworthy. I will deal with each one in turn and list some of the problems these guidelines face.

“(1) Read or listen to arguments and counter-arguments offered by the two experts, whether in a published exchange of views, an oral debate, or separate defenses of their respective positions.” (1)
Difficulty 1: The evidence and/or arguments discussed may include esoteric terminology. One may try and listen to the arguments and counter-arguments but fail to understand or even misunderstand them. Goldman makes a distinction between esoteric and exoteric terminology. Esoteric terms are not only unfamiliar to non-experts; they are inaccessible to them. This may because they involve unfamiliar concepts and theories. Exoteric terms are unfamiliar to non-experts but can that can be learned and understood by novices without any specialized training. Grasping exoteric terms may involve a subject to do some extra reading on the subject, whereas understanding esoteric terms may require one to become an expert in that field.

Difficulty 2: Superficially convincing arguments could be made to support one side of the debate, but these arguments may turn out invalid or contain false premises. If one tries to assess the arguments and counter-arguments of two disagreeing experts, one better have a decent working knowledge of informal logic. The expert committing more logical fallacies possesses fewer solid reasons for their belief. But a valid argument is not necessarily a sound one. Going back to the first difficulty, non-experts might not be able to tell whether a premise is true or not. To an expert, a given premise may be obviously false and contradicted by lots of evidence they are aware of. But to a layperson, it may seem to be plausible.

“(2) Find out what the opinions of other (putative) experts on the topic in question.    If most of them agree with expert A, then identify A as your best guide.  If most choose expert B, identify B as the more trustworthy one.  In short, go with the numbers to guide your choice of favored expert.”
Caveat: When it comes to issues where the vast majority of relevant experts are in agreement, going with the numbers is a good rule of thumb. For instance, the vast majority of climatologists accept that the planet is currently going through a warming trend and that this is primarily due to recent human activity. Should we accept the testimony of climatologists solely on the basis of consensus? In short, no. There are some possible scenarios where it would be rational to doubt consensus opinion (e.g. Nazi scientists during WW2). As long as the consensus position seems to be backed by valid arguments and independent sources of evidence, it is rational to side with the consensus.

“(3) Consult "meta-experts" about experts A and B.  Try to find out which of them is the superior expert by asking people in a position to compare and contrast them.  Or people who trained them or have worked with them.”

The idea is looking for additional experts other than the two you initially found. They might be in a good position to tell whether or not experts A or B have compelling arguments, especially if they have nothing to gain or lose in the debate. Where can one find meta-experts? You’re likely to find tons of meta-experts if you look through the peer-reviewed literature, reputable periodicals, or even personal blogs. In today’s age, many scientists blog to try and educate the general public about their work. One could even directly contact meta-experts at a local university or one could reach out to experts through email or on specialized web forums. And if you're lucky enough, you may personally know some meta-experts that could weigh in on the debate.

 “(4) Obtain evidence about the experts' biases and interests, which might lead them to self-serving answers of dubious veracity (whatever their underlying competence).”

In some cases, there is obvious bias and conflicts of interest at play with a given expert. Whether it is some political or religious agenda, these factors need to be taken into account. But one should be cautious when discrediting certain experts. It could be the case that some of the testimony is perfectly valid, or that their bias or conflicts of interest played no role in the formation of their beliefs about the issue at hand. Furthermore, an expert may be extremely biased but turn out to be right. Therefore, before one discredits an expert on grounds of bias or a conflict of interest, one must have some independent reason to think that their claims are wrong. Conspiracy theorists frequently misuse such a guideline when they discredit all experts who testify against their favored theory. Finding a potential source of bias (e.g. government funding) for some expert, and then completely disregarding everything they have to say is intellectually lazy and dishonest. The implication is that all such experts are lying or saying misleading things. If it can be shown that either is the case, that would be the reason to seriously doubt the expert’s testimony, not from just from the possibility of a conflict of interest.  

Another source of bias can be uncovered by carefully studying the behavior of a given expert. Experts who dismiss alternative positions out of hand should raise red flags. I say this because most experts tend to exhibit a certain kind of psychological profile. They tend to be fairly humble, well-integrated into their epistemic communities, and they seem to be genuinely interested in the truth. Experts tend to be very cautious when making controversial claims and admit that their own favored hypotheses could be mistake. They tend to actively engage their peers in academic journals and at conferences, try and test their hypotheses, and compare the success or failure of their own predictions to rival theories. Commenting on the small group of scientists who endorse the 9/11 conspiracy theories surrounding the tower collapses, Noam Chomsky has noted that, “They are not doing what scientists and engineers do when they’ve think they’ve discovered something" (2). Having studied the phenomenon of conspiracy theories quite extensively, I can vouch for Chomsky. Many of the “experts” who promote conspiracy theories lack the psychological profile found amongst genuine experts, and seem to share a number of opposing psychological traits. For instance, many manifest an excessive degree of pride or intellectual superiority, they tend to keep within a closed circle of peers who share their views, and they don't even attempt to convince the general scientific community about their "findings". These individuals might even possess the relevant knowledge to assess claims of interest, but their psychological profile and behavior casts serious doubt upon their capacity to seriously engage criticism and to critically evaluate their own positions. It is for this reason that their testimony should be taken with a grain of salt.

“(5)  Gather evidence of their past track-records and apportion trust as a function of these track records.”

Gathering evidence of an expert’s track record may turn out to be a challenge. Good track records of experts may come in the form of accurate and specific predictions. One might also try to look through their publication history or get a sense of their reputation amongst peers. Another way would be to look at an expert’s track record is to see if they have subscribed to controversial or fringe views in the past. Some experts can just be contrarians, while others seem to be suffering from crank magnetism. For instance, James Fetzer, a well-respected philosopher of science who taught critical thinking for most of his career, believes just about every conspiracy theory. He not only believes that 9/11 was an inside job, but that no children were killed at Sandy Hook, that we didn’t land on the moon, and that Paul McCartney died in the 60’s and was then replaced by someone with the same physical appearance, personality, and musical talents. In the case of Fetzer, there seems to be some kind of systematic misapplication of critical thinking going on (at least when he is theorizing about certain historical events). Those like Fetzer not only routinely appeal to pseudoexperts, but they accept many demonstrably false or highly questionable claims, make a number of unwarranted assumptions about human nature, and are apparently unskilled at making inferences to the best explanation. Since critical thinking is really a set of skills, knowledge of certain concepts and strategies related to the subject is not sufficient for knowledge how.

I believe that if one closely follows all of the advice outlined above, one will be more likely to acquire true beliefs about the world. But it is one thing to propose a strategy that makes sense in theory and quite another to have the strategy actually work for most people. Certain facts about our psychological limitations (e.g. confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance) may prevent us from being objective enough to really follow through with such advice. Nonetheless, we ought to at least try to be as objective as we can. Given the complexity of the world around us, we all need to appeal to experts at some time or another, whether it's to find out about our personal health, or how the world works. If we are going to appeal to experts, and are genuinely interested in discovering the truth, then it's a good idea to try and track down the right ones.

 1. Goldman, A. I. (2001). Experts: which ones should you trust?. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 63(1), 85-110.

2. Tuskin, B. (2013). Noam Chomsky has no opinion on building 7. Retrieved December 05, 2016, from

Saturday, November 19, 2016

An essay on animal welfare

“the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
                                                                                         Jeremy Bentham

In the United States, 25 million land animals are killed for food each day, most of whom spent their lives suffering in horrible conditions. The lives of most farm animals can be accurately described in terms of bodily mutilation, suffocation, disease, starvation, confinement to small cages and pens, chronic pain, and perpetual darkness. Annually, the number of animals slaughtered is more than the world’s current human population (~9 billion), and that is not counting any of the farm animals in Asia, Europe, Africa, South America, or Australia (~56 billion). Aside from the fact that conventional farming practices exploit billions of animals per year, they also result in serious environmental costs. Meat production results in the release of a significant amount of CO2 and methane gases, directly contributing to the potentially disastrous effects of anthropogenic global warming.

What should we glean from such facts? Some conclude that it is simply immoral to purchase meats that are produced from "factory farms" (large farms that treat animals inhumanely). The argument is rather straightforward. Purchasing factory farmed meat indirectly supports and perpetuates unjustifiable animal suffering on a massive scale. Causing suffering without sufficient reason is immoral. Therefore, factory farming is immoral and it is immoral to support or perpetuate such practices through purchasing their animal products. 

Given that the argument is valid, with premises hard to deny, there are several ways for meat-eaters to respond to such information. One would be to disregard such news and to continue one’s prior eating practices and food shopping habits. This would consist of taking up an attitude of moral indifference and extreme selfishness. Another way to respond would be to continue one’s prior eating practices but with a guilty conscience. I think the right way to respond is to become more critical about what you buy at the grocery store. This doesn’t entail full-blown veganism, or even vegetarianism. In my view, simply purchasing less meat counts as a moral improvement. One could also support humane farming practices (e.g. local farms with pasture raised animals) by purchasing their meats, as well as switching over to vegan dairy alternatives (e.g. soy milk, vegan butter). Just like there has been an increased awareness about nutrition amongst consumers, there ought to be an increased awareness of the ethical and environmental harms associated with our diets.

The cost in changing one’s eating habits is largely a matter of inconvenience. Our grocery bills might go up, awkward conversations with friends and family will likely increase in number, and we may no longer be able to eat our favorite foods. Having to live with such inconveniences may be too psychologically or financially demanding for some individuals. But for the vast majority of individuals, in the developed world, I think the attitude of indifference is morally indefensible and blameworthy. To be clear, I am not arguing for the abolishment of meat production or that everyone should become a vegetarian or vegan. I am arguing that 1) supporting factory farmed meat production is immoral and 2) we all ought to seriously reconsider our eating habits and make some changes. For those shaking your head in disagreement, I will now run through and dismantle a number of bad arguments commonly used to defend meat eating. I will then turn to possible objections from vegans and vegetarians who may argue that my approach is way too soft. 

Objections from meat eaters

1. What about the plants?  If we worry about the interests of non-human animals on factory farms, then we have also to worry about the interests of plants. The quickest response is to say that plants do not have interests because they cannot feel pain or suffer. No serious scientist even entertains that idea. It is worth pointing out that there are even plausible instances of animals that lack such capacities (e.g. oysters and other kinds of shellfish).

2. What about being healthy? Restrictive diets do have certain disadvantages, but it does not follow that meat is essential for a healthy diet. Meats contain high amounts of protein and some contain high amounts of vitamin B-12. Protein can be found in nuts, cereal grains, beans, soy-based products (e.g. protein powder, milk), and certain vegetables. B-12 can be found in soy milk, nutritional yeast, and certain cereals. B-12 can also be acquired through taking supplements. As long as one is health conscious, vegetarian or vegan diets can be just as healthy as one containing meat.

3. Why care about animal suffering? I take it that we all do care about animal suffering. After all, humans are animals, and most of us believe that human suffering—regardless of race, sex, or intelligence—matters a great deal. We are at a point in history where we now condemn racism and sexism on the grounds that such views unjustifiably exclude the interests of certain groups from equal consideration. The philosopher Peter Singer forcefully makes the point that we ought to be consistent with this moral principle and extend it to non-human animals as well.

“our concern for others ought not to depend on what they are like, or what abilities they possess…It is on this basis that we are able to say that the fact that some people are not members of our race does not entitle us to exploit them, and similarly the fact that some people are less intelligent than others does not mean that their interests may be disregarded. But the principle also implies that the fact that beings are not members of our species does not entitle us to exploit them, and similarly the fact that other animals are less intelligent than we are does not mean that their interests may be disregarded.” (Singer 1979)

Farm animals can feel pain and suffer. Hence, farm animals have interests that we need to consider; they have an interest not to undergo pain and suffering. If one accepts the principle of equal consideration of interests, but denies its extension to non-human animals, one must demonstrate where the morally relevant difference lies. One might point towards a difference in intelligence, but we do not accept this as a morally relevant factor in the case of human beings. If two human beings are suffering, we ought to try and help both, not ignore the one who is less intelligent. A refusal or inability to point out a relevant difference may indicate implicit speciesism (analogous to sexism or racism) or just an inability to articulate what they take the difference to be.

4. Animals kill each other all of time. Why is it wrong for us to do the same?
This point can be made in several other ways. Some argue for a kind of Darwinian ethics and that ‘survival of the fittest’ should be our moral slogan. To make such a claim is to commit the rather well known naturalistic fallacy. It does not logically follow that if something is natural that makes it good, safe, or morally acceptable. It also seems to derive an ought from an is; a direct violation of Hume’s law. Just because the world is a certain way, doesn't mean that it ought to be that way. A third issue is that it holds all animals to the same moral standard. The idea is that, if it’s morally acceptable for a lion to kill a gazelle, then it’s okay for a human to do so. There are at least two relevant differences between lions and humans. First, lions, like most non-human animals, do not have an understanding of right and wrong. Second, lions, unlike humans, are carnivores and need to consume some meat to be healthy. Given that most humans can reflect upon the moral status of their actions and are not living in the wilderness hunting for their survival, there is no comparison to the situation of the lion. Humans can choose to eat meat. It is a further moral consideration of whether or not they should. 

5. What about the majority of your peers who disagree with you?
I think they’re wrong. Just because a majority of the population believes something doesn’t make it true. One ought to believe things based on valid arguments and evidence, not through appealing to popular opinion. At one time, the majority of the population believed the Earth was flat. In that instance, the false belief was due to scientific ignorance. Perhaps an even better example, just a couple hundred years ago, most believed that slavery was morally permissible. And it’s not like beliefs about slavery changed overnight. It took a long time for people to realize their moral shortcomings. I think the same is true in the case of the mistreatment of non-human animals, only, that it may take even longer for people to accept such conclusions, given the role that animal products have played in our diets and cultural traditions throughout history. 

6. What about the rich culinary traditions from around the world that use animal products? Are you really suggesting no more Thanksgiving or BBQs?
It’s not clear that we will in fact lose such traditions. The development of lab-grown meats and meat/dairy alternatives may gradually come to replace farm-based animal products. For those skeptical, try some of the meatfree options (e.g. TVP, vegan orange "chicken") at a local Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Depending on how it is prepared, the taste of texturized vegetable protein (TVP) can be indistinguishable from ground beef. But even if we did have to give up some of our beloved recipes and traditions, would that constitute a moral reason in favor of meat production? It sounds like more of an aesthetic reason, one that should be weighed against the interests of the animals. Reflecting upon the consumption of a burger, what is more important? The well being of the animal used to make it, or the few minutes of human nourishment and pleasure derived from its consumption?

7. Aren’t you a man? Perhaps this isn’t an argument intended to be serious but, rather, a knee-jerk defense mechanism against moral criticism. Taken seriously, it seems to imply that actively participating in the exploitation of billions of conscious creatures is some kind of initiation ritual in becoming a “real man”. Even if this were true, there would still be grounds for criticism. If that’s what it takes to be a “real man”, why would anyone with a respectable moral character take the idea seriously? Anyways, doing what’s morally right seems to trump concerns of lower social status amongst some of our male peers.

8. I saw you eating a burger the other day! It’s true that, as of 2016, I eat meat, but my current eating habits are fairly consistent with everything I have said so far. I have recently reduced my overall intake of meat and have switched over to a number of dairy/meat alternatives. The majority of my meals are now vegetarian. If I had a bigger budget, I would buy meat from local farms and buy cage-free eggs on a regular basis. I’m far from perfect, but it’s a start.

Objection from vegans

1. Everyone should be a vegan. How can you defend even occasional meat eating? Ethical vegans abstain completely from purchasing or eating meat altogether, largely due to animal welfare concerns. While I sympathize with their attitudes regarding factory-farmed meats, I disagree with their assessment of various alternatives. If farm animals live a decent life and are slaughtered in a way that involves no pain or suffering, I don’t see much wrong with killing such animals for food. In fact, it could be argued that such lives would be preferable to not existing at all, an option many vegans seem to prefer. Secondly, going to the grocery store is not the only way to acquire meats. I think that hunting for food, provided that the hunter has an accurate shot, can be morally acceptable. Especially in cases where a region suffers from an overpopulation of animals, such as deer or wild pigs. Since the alternative modes of death for such animals would be starvation, predation, or collision with a car, taking a bullet may be one of the best ways to go.

If we are to make progress on improving the lives of non-human animals, we need to start off slow. Expressing moral superiority or condescension towards friends and family will likely be counterproductive in aims of spreading awareness and changing behavior. We should instead encourage and praise ethically motivated changes in behavior regardless of far it is from moral perfection.

There are reasons to be optimistic. Just recently, Perdue Farms have agreed to make serious changes to the living conditions and slaughtering practices of their chickens. This is significant because 7% of all factory-farmed meat in the United States comes from Perdue Farms. Due to consumer demand, other farms may end up following Perdue's lead. It is not clear when Perdue will implement its new guidelines (could take years), but the fact that they have announced such plans is still good news. 

To end the post, I will present a checklist of simple changes we can all make to support humane farming practices and to decrease the amount of animal suffering in the world.

1)      Reflect upon the ethical and environmental consequences of your eating habits.
2)      Switch from dairy to soy milk (same with butter).
3)      Try some of the meat alternatives (Some are tasty!).
4)      Cut back meat consumption, your heart will thank you too! (e.g. meatless Mondays).
5)      If you can afford it, buy meats and animal products from farms that humanely raise their animals, or look for wild caught meats (e.g. wild boar, deer). A good place to buy your meats would be from Whole Foods. All of their meats come from non-factory farms. They even have a rating system (1-5 stars) to inform you of the specific ethical guidelines followed by the farms. A 5 star rating means that the animals are pasture raised, humanely transported to the slaughterhouse (i.e. they're not crammed into a truck and driven several hours away), and humanely slaughtered. 
6)      When going out to eat, try restaurants that purchase meats from local farms (They typically disclose such information on their websites. Likely to only find these in the city, though).
7)      Read Peter Singer’s book “Animal Liberation” or recommend it to a friend.

Works cited

Singer, P. (1979). Practical ethics. 1993. New York.


An essay on abortion

Within the context of politics, the abortion debate is usually framed as having two sides: pro-life and pro-choice. Those who are pro-life believe that abortions are immoral. Pro-choice is the view that a woman should have the right to decide the outcome of the fetus, and that at least some abortions are morally permissible. Note that the pro-life view seems to make an absolute claim about abortion, namely, that it is always objectionable, though, some who consider themselves pro-life allow for a few exceptions to the rule (e.g. rape, incest). The pro-choice view is committed to a far weaker claim; there are some instances of morally acceptable abortions. Making broad moral generalizations about the practice of abortion would require one to ignore the fact that abortions involve a highly diverse set of circumstances that may make a difference to the moral evaluation of any given procedure. In order to make a well-informed moral evaluation of abortion, as a practice, one must consider all of the morally relevant details. I will argue that the vast majority of abortions (in the United States) are morally acceptable but that some late-term abortions are morally objectionable.

I think there are at least three broad kinds of moral difference makers when it comes to abortion. First, there is the fetal stage of development. Second, there is the type of procedure (relevant in how much harm it involves). Lastly, the health and well-being of the fetus and the mother. I must first set some groundwork defending the, perhaps, most controversial claim, that the stage of fetal development is morally relevant.

Human life is said to have intrinsic moral worth. That is to say, human lives have a certain kind of moral value that a rock or chair does not. Some believe that God bestowed souls or moral qualities upon us that give us a natural right to life. This is known as the sanctity of life view. On this view, all humans—no matter what stage of development—have equal moral value. Humans have a right to life, and it is simply wrong to kill them. An alternative view, which I shall call the developmental approach, argues that humans have moral worth because of certain mental capacities and features, and that these features emerge at different stages of development. At perhaps the earliest stage, creatures acquire the capacity to feel pain and to experience pleasure. It is at this stage where creatures begin to have interests (e.g. avoid pain and suffering) and when it becomes wrong to harm them. Later on in development, creatures acquire more complex psychological traits such as self-awareness, the capacity to form life narratives and long-term goals, the formation of complex social bonds, and an understanding of morality. Philosophers call creatures that possess such features persons. Persons have a far greater number of interests than do creatures lacking personhood, making it morally worse to do them harm. For instance, persons may have an interest in self-survival and in cultivating one’s abilities.

The sanctity of life view is not plausible because it is overcommitting and too restrictive. While it may sound intuitive to say that ‘it is always wrong to kill or end the life of an innocent human being’ there are some widely agreed upon exceptions to the rule. Anencephalic infants—which are born missing most of their brain—are not conscious beings. Their life expectancy is typically between several hours to a few days; at most, a few months. Few—on both sides of the debate—accept that it is wrong to end the life of a human with anencephaly. A second exception is the case of an adult human who lapses into a permanent vegetative state. It is commonly believed that a fully formed adult human that permanently loses all of their mental capacities, also loses their moral worth. It is not wrong to end the life of an individual in a vegetative state because there is no person to harm or stream of consciousness to end. The only subjects of harm would be their close family members, and even they, in most cases, decide to end their loved one’s life.

The sanctity of life view is also limited, as it seems to apply only to humans. It is implicitly speciesist (analogous to sexist or racist views). After all, there may be other kinds of creatures that are have as much moral worth as humans. Adult chimpanzees seem to be self-aware, possess a rudimentary sense of fairness and morality, and engage in long-term planning and complex sociality. If we were to ever run into any, we would be probably be inclined to attribute moral qualities to intelligent extra-terrestrials as well (e.g. ET, Spock).

Bearing in mind the developmental stage is relevant for making moral judgments because each stage comes with its own measure of moral worth based upon the capacities present. Personhood, I think, unfolds gradually. That is just to say that I do not think that all of the morally relevant capacities emerge at the same time. It is also the case that many of the features fall on a continuum, rather than being all-or-nothing. For instance, 10-month old children seem to possess a rudimentary understanding of moral norms and punishment. But the 10-month old’s understanding is nowhere as sophisticated as, say, a five or six year old’s understanding of moral norms. Exactly when the personhood features emerge is an empirical matter. Hence, one should take my estimations with a grain of salt. I think most would agree that it is more wrong to end the life of an adult than a young child; a young child than newborn; a newborn than 6-week old fetus. Those who hold the sanctity of life view might be inclined to agree with this, but would likely reject the idea that a fetus before 6 months lacks moral worth altogether. They might argue that while fetuses lack the features and capacities that are morally relevant, they have the potential to acquire them later in life. There is a lot more to be said about this point and I plan to take up it up in a future post. For now, the developmental view still seems to capture our intuitions about the value of human life at differing stages.

Other moral difference makers include how the abortion is performed, and the reasons for why it is performed.

When we hear of abortions, we tend to think of rather graphic surgical procedures. Those only make up 1% of abortions performed. About 25% of abortions come in the form of a pill. RU-486 is a common form of medical abortion, effective up until the second trimester. The most common form of abortion is surgical vacuum aspiration, a procedure performed when the fetus weighs less than an ounce and is only two inches tall. According to the CDC, the vast majority of abortions (92%) occur before the thirteenth week, and only 1% of abortions occur after week 22. Neuroscientists have determined that fetuses probably don’t develop the capacity to feel pain until week 26. They have determined this by looking at the development of the fetal brain. Most neuroscientists think the neocortex is involved in the processing and sensation of pain, and fetuses do not start developing neocortical regions until around week 26. Therefore, fetuses probably lack the capacity to feel pain until that time. Even if scientists are off by a wide margin (say 13 weeks), it would still be true that a majority of abortions would be morally permissible on this view. After all, if the procedure involves no fetal pain or suffering, the fetus is not harmed. One may argue that there may be other sources of harm (e.g. to society), but it is implausible to suggest that there is harm in killing the 13 week old fetus in itself.

Why do most women have abortions? A study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute found the following answers:
0.3 % (0.1-0.6 %)
0.03 % (0.01-0.1 %)
physical life of mother
0.1 % (0.01-0.2 %)
physical health of mother
0.8 % (0.1-3 %)
fetal health
0.5 % (0.1-1.0 %)
mental health of mother
?? (0.1-8 %)
--too young/immature/not ready for responsibility
--to avoid adjusting life
--mother single or in poor relationship
--enough children already
--sex selection
--selective reduction
98.3% (87-99 %)
--? (32 %)
--30% (25-40 %)
--? (16 %)
--? (12-13 %)
--? (4-8 %)
--0.1% (<0.1-? %)
--0.1% (<0.1-0.4 %)
(Johnston 2016)

Most agree that certain circumstances absolve the mother from blame. This is true when a rare genetic abnormality is detected late (e.g. huntington’s disease, microcephaly), potential harm or death to the mother is likely, and when the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. But it turns out that 98% of abortions are performed for elective reasons, rather than for reasons related to the health of the fetus or mother. Based on such results, one may think that most abortions are morally objectionable. But on the developmental view, this would be a mistake. We need to also consider when most of these procedures take place. As stated earlier, 99% of abortions are carried out before a fetus has the capacity to feel pain. There is limited data to draw from when determining why most late-term abortions are carried out. But Professor Diane Foster, a researcher at the Bixby Center for Reproductive Health, suspects that fetal anomalies “make up a small minority of later abortions,”. If we assume that most late term abortions are morally objectionable, we still end up with a fairly low figure for morally objectionable abortions. Put in terms of numbers, there would be approximately 7000 morally objectionable abortions carried out each year in the US. On the developmental view, these 7000 abortions would not be the moral equivalent of killing 7000 adults. It might be more like killing 7000 non-human animals (e.g. cows, chickens) a year, or 20 a day. One might object that this comparison between human and non-human fetuses is illegitimate. It may be argued that only human fetuses have the potential to realize personhood and other morally relevant properties. Therefore, human fetuses have more moral worth than non-human animals. I will not take a stand on this issue here and will simply leave it to the reader to dwell over.

In this post, I’ve defended a developmental stance on abortion against the sanctity of life doctrine. On the developmental view, the moral permissibility of an abortion depends largely on when the procedure is carried out, but there are other morally relevant factors (e.g. procedure, health of fetus/mother). Given that most abortions occur before the fetus develops any of the morally relevant features, I have argued that most abortions are morally permissible. While the sanctity of life doctrine may be popular amongst laypeople (especially those who are religious), it is not the most sophisticated anti-abortion view to hold. In a future post, I will return to the subject of abortion to take on what I take to be the strongest positions.

Further reading:


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

What Fodor got wrong: Distilling theoretical issues in philosophy of biology into plain talk

In 2011, the philosopher Jerry Fodor riled up philosophers and scientists alike with the release of a book, co-written with a cognitive psychologist, criticizing Darwin and his theory of natural selection (Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini 2011). Fodor is a card-carrying atheist, and accepts most of what modern evolutionary biology teaches: the glaring exception being the theory of natural selection. If I read Fodor correctly, this is roughly what he argues in his book, “What Darwin got wrong”: The theory of natural selection is—by itself—empty or unexplanatory. This is because, for any two linked traits (e.g. pumping blood and thump thump noises), the theory does not tell you which was selected for. In the case of the heart, evolutionary biologists know perfectly damn well that it was selected for pumping blood (Fodor thinks even his grandma could have known that!). However, the evolutionary biologists are drawing from lots of empirical evidence and fields of study (e.g. functional biology) that fall outside the reach of the theory of natural selection. Since Darwin’s theory does not provide an answer to the selection question (i.e. pump or thump?), natural selection—understood as a scientific theory—does not account for the very phenomenon it tries to explain (i.e. the selection of traits). Fodor thinks that trying to provide a selection mechanism to save the theory is a fool’s errand, since there’s likely no such mechanism. Therefore, Fodor concludes that we should give up on the theory all together. There are two burning questions: 1) how does Fodor reach this conclusion? & 2) what is the significance of Fodor’s claim (if he’s right)?

§1: The theory of natural selection

Before I get to Fodor, I will quickly summarize some basic concepts with the aim of further illuminating Darwin’s theory. Those who are familiar with the theory can skip or skim most of this section. Darwin’s theory is predicated on two theses: 1) common descent and 2) the transmutation of species. Roughly, these state that 1) all life on earth shared a common ancestor (in the distant past) and 2) lifeforms have changed—or evolved—over time. The second thesis can be equated with evolution, understood as a natural phenomenon. The theory of natural selection aims to explain how evolution is possible. Amongst laypeople, it is commonly asked whether or not evolution is true, or whether the theory of evolution has been proven. However, both of these questions are ill-posed.

I think that the question of whether evolution is true or not commits, what philosophers call, a category mistake. If one understands evolution to be the mere phenomenon of creatures changing or evolving over time, then such a question would be akin to “Is gravity, or precipitation true?” Gravity is a natural phenomenon, one we are all familiar with. In addition, there are theories of gravity (e.g. Einstein’s general relativity theory) that explain how the phenomenon works. It would be strange to say that gravity—the phenomenon itself—is true. Likewise, it is improper to say that evolution is true. Phenomena cannot be true or false; they just occur or not and can observed or detected. The main disconnect between gravity and evolution is that virtually all of us directly observe the former but not the latter. Evolution—like other natural phenomena (e.g. formation of islands, glacial movements)—is typically too slow or subtle for most of us to notice in the real world. However, scientists observe evolution occurring (both directly and indirectly) on a regular basis (e.g. the evolution of the flu virus).

Taking up the second question—of provability—is again making a category mistake. There are no instances of proven scientific theories because they aren’t the sorts of things that can be proved. It would be like asking, “What is the marital status of a triangle?” Proofs are perhaps the standard in disciplines like mathematics, but not in science. Scientific theories perform a number of functions. Explanation is perhaps the most important role. Of explanations, we can ask whether or not they are adequate, plausible, well supported by evidence and so on. It is often remarked that “evolution is just a theory”. But this ignores the wide spectrum of theories, some of which aren’t supported at all by evidence (e.g. Dogs are cleverly disguised Martians), and our scientific theories supported by an overwhelming amount of evidence (e.g. relativity theory, quantum mechanics, plate tectonics). It would be like saying that “So and so is just a basketball player”, discounting all of the diversity of skill level that could fall under such a description. No reasonable person would lump their next door neighbor, who plays basketball for fun by himself on weekends, to an NBA hall of famer. Likewise, no reasonable person should put well-supported scientific theories into the same boat with wildly speculative and empirically unsupported theories.
The theory of natural selection is typically broken down into three key ideas that aim to explain how species evolve over time: variation, inheritance and selection. The first two ideas are fairly straightforward. First, in order for creatures to change over time, there needs to be some way for differences (e.g. anatomical) between creatures to accrue. An organism that gave birth to a carbon copy of itself would result in no species change. Second, mere trait changes would not get very far if there wasn’t a way for the offspring to inherit those changes. We now know that both variation and inheritance can be explained at the level of the gene, and that genes can be altered through random mutations which result from a number of causes (e.g. UV rays, natural sources of radiation on Earth, genetic copying mishaps). Genetic variation combined with a mechanism of inheritance (i.e. genes) provides a way for creatures to change over time.

The final piece of the puzzle is to account for why certain creatures survive and pass along their genes, while others die out. Darwin made a distinction between two kinds of solutions. The creatures can be selected (to survive) either artificially or naturally. Artificial selection is perhaps best exemplified by the evolution of the domestic dog. All domestic dogs—including the Chihuahua and Great Dane—shared a common wolf ancestor roughly 30,000 years ago (Skoglund 2015). Modern domestic dogs vary so significantly because of humans, whom artificially selected the nicest and prettiest wolves. Natural selection involves no selecting agents such as humans. Natural selection occurs by a number of means, though natural disasters (e.g. forest fires, tsunamis), disease, and predators are the big three. Typically, the creatures that survive long enough to reproduce are the ones that are best adapted to their environment. Sadly, since most environments change over time (e.g. due to climate change, asteroid impacts, etc.), most creatures will die out. Roughly 98% of all creatures that have ever existed have gone extinct. The survivors—including us humans—did not just get lucky; all extant life on the planet survived for a reason, namely, we all more-or-less inherited the traits necessary to survive in our respective environments.

§2: How Fodor gets there
The previous section laid out Darwin’s theory of natural selection in a nutshell. To make the issues more engaging, one might now imagine Fodor’s reaction after sitting in on such an overview of the theory.

Fodor: Artificial selection makes a lot of sense; it’s the natural selection part that gets me. When a dog breeder selects the dogs he wishes to breed, there is both an obvious selection mechanism at work (i.e the dog breeder) and an obvious way to determine which trait is being selected for; you just ask the guy! However, when it comes to natural selection, there is the question, for any pair of linked traits (e.g. pumping blood and thump thump noises), which gets selected for? There is first the issue of there being no human breeder (e.g. God) to interrogate, as well as the issue of what a natural selection mechanism—that picks out one trait and not the other—would even look like. In every instance where you have linked traits, it seems as if ‘nature’ has to select both. It is obvious to everyone that there is a fact of the matter about which trait is being selected for (the heart!), but there doesn’t seem to be a way for Darwin’s theory to tell us which, absent some kind of natural selection mechanism or a law of adaptation.

Upon learning about evolutionary theory, really no one (other than Fodor) raises such problems. Why is the theory so commonsensical to scientists and laypeople alike, but so incoherent to Fodor? I think there is a straightforward answer, and one that does not appeal to name-calling. Fodor has some pretty sophisticated views about the nature of scientific theories, laws and explanations. The reason why scientists don’t really engage with his claims is because they probably don’t have any well-developed views on the nature of explanation and science, both of which typically fall under the heading of ‘philosophy of science.’ The reason why most philosophers of science have not “seen the light” is because Fodor’s views on these matters are not widely held today. For example, Fodor endorses Hempel’s deductive-nomological (DN) model of explanation (Smith 2008). Without getting into the details, this view on explanation does not work very well for Darwin’s theory, an observation made well before the publication of Fodor’s book (Hempel 1965). For those uninterested in evaluating the merits of the competing philosophical views on explanation, here is an (overly simplistic) argument you might find helpful.

What Fodor says about natural selection essentially hinges on the truth of Hempel’s view on explanation. If Hempel’s view is wrong, then Fodor is wrong. According to most contemporary philosophers of science, it is doubtful that Hempel’s view works (see Strevens 2006 for an overview). Therefore, Fodor is (probably) wrong about Darwin’s theory. 

§3. What if Fodor’s right?
Given that Fodor concedes that evolutionary biologists have the tools answer the selection question, the science can proceed as it has for some time. However, I think that the scientists would have to concede that they aren’t answering the selection question via the theory of natural selection. Additionally, they would have to admit that the theory of natural selection adds nothing to their scientific understanding of selection effects. What would then become of the theory? One might think that the theory might still be perfectly useful as a metaphor for introductory purposes. Perhaps eventually, an even better metaphor might replace Darwin’s own (Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini 2011, ch. 9). However, one might still be unimpressed with Fodor’s argument. So what if we don’t derive truths about selection effects from Darwin’s theory? Darwin laid the groundwork for fields that now do manage to get at those truths. If all that we have to change is how we should talk about Darwin’s theory, no one is really going to care. But I believe Fodor’s claim (if right) would actually be somewhat significant. You wouldn’t be able to call Darwin’s theory a theory any longer. Would this cause celebration amongst creationist circles, or some embarrassment amongst evolutionary biologists? Possibly so. Would it change anything about how the actual science proceeds? Probably not.

Works cited
Darwin, C. (1897). The origin of species by means of natural selection, or, The preservation of favored races in the struggle for life. Vol. 1. International Science Library.
Fodor, J., & Piattelli-Palmarini, M. (2011). What Darwin got wrong. Profile books. Chicago         
Godfrey-smith, Peter (2008). Explanation in evolutionary biology: Comments on Fodor. Mind and Language 23 (1):32–41.
Hempel, Carl (1965). Aspects of Scientific Explanation and Other Essays in the Philosophy of Science. The Free Press.
Neander, Karen (1991). Functions as selected effects: The conceptual analyst's defense. Philosophy of Science 58 (2):168-184.
Skoglund, P. (2015). "Ancient wolf genome reveals an early divergence of domestic dog ancestors and admixture into high-latitude breeds". Current Biology 25 (11): 1515–9.
Strevens, M. (2006). Scientific explanation. Encyclopedia of Philosophy, second edition. DM Borchert (ed.). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA.