Saturday, July 8, 2017

The argument from marginal cases

Vegans defend a number of arguments for why we shouldn’t raise and kill animals for food. One of the most popular and longstanding arguments for veganism is the argument from marginal cases (AMC). It goes like this:

Humans are thought to have more moral value than other animals because humans typically possess certain traits that we take to be morally relevant (e.g. self-awareness, high intelligence, rationality, moral understanding, future oriented desires, and life goals). But there are some humans that lack all of these traits, and some animals that seem to possess some of them (though, to a lesser degree). Humans that lack all of the morally relevant characteristics are referred to as ‘marginal cases’. Marginal cases include: the severely retarded, infants, anencephalics (babies born without brains), the senile, and permanent comatose patients. If one grants that these marginal cases lack all of the traits required for having moral worth, then they ought to be considered equals to certain non-human animals (e.g. cows), and inferiors to others (e.g. chimpanzees and dolphins). But we do not treat infants or the severely retarded like we treat non-human animals. That is to say, we don’t kill and eat babies, we don’t torture them, and we don’t experiment on them. What kind of moral theory or principle could explain this differential treatment? Without a morally relevant difference between the marginal cases and non-human animals, we are not justified in our differential treatment of the two groups. Our treatment of animals is inconsistent with how we treat the marginal cases. 

In this post, I will first refute two objections to AMC. I will then provide a radical way to remedy the inconsistency between our beliefs about marginal cases and animals. I will argue that neither the non-human animals or the marginal cases should be subjected to unnecessary pain and suffering, but that we may allow for certain kinds of experimentation and animal farming (across species), provided there are no rights violations or extrinsic harms that result from such practices.

Part 1: Objections to the AMC

Objection 1: Species, though

One way to resist the argument would be to argue that there in fact are morally relevant traits present in humans that are lacking in non-human animals. A typical example would be species membership. Simply being human has moral worth. All humans are members of the species homo sapiens, and no non-human animals are members of our species. Therefore, we have moral justification to treat non-human animals the way we do, because they are of a different species. The problem with this objection is that it seems implausible that being a member of a particular species is morally relevant at all.

Imagine we were to encounter extraterrestrial lifeforms or some other hominin species (e.g. Neanderthals) that were like us with respect to our cognitive capacities. They can talk, are capable of moral understanding, are highly intelligent, and are self-conscious. It seems obvious that we would consider these beings to have moral worth, but they are not members of our species. It is the morally relevant characteristics that they share with us that gives them moral worth. Therefore, species membership is not a morally relevant characteristic.

Objection 2: Souls, though

A second objection may come from those from a religious background. Humans have moral value because they have souls. Animals don’t have souls. Therefore, animals don’t have moral value. The problem with this objection is two-fold. First, positing the existence of a soul to explain human cognition is superfluous in light of modern cognitive science and psychology and fraught with metaphysical baggage. I don’t have time to get into the details, but for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that humans do have souls. Would that be enough for the argument to work? No. There are many religious traditions (e.g. Hinduism, Sikhism) that recognize the existence of animal souls, including at least five denominations of Christianity (Seventh Day Adventists, Episcopalians).

But even if we grant that animals don’t have souls, there is still work to be done on explaining why possessing a soul is necessary for having moral worth. If a creature can experience pain and suffering, it seems wrong to harm such a creature for trivial reasons (e.g. personal pleasure). The intuition that causing gratuitous suffering to conscious beings is immoral is shared by believers and nonbelievers alike. Without any good reason to doubt the force of this intuition, we are justified in believing that causing gratuitous suffering is just wrong, full stop. The absence of a soul does nothing to change this intuition.

There are plenty more bad objections to discuss, but I have been unable to come across any that are compelling. In turn, I believe that our differential treatment of the marginal cases and non-human animals is inconsistent and morally unjustifiable. For those who find the argument sound, the AMC forces one to reconsider our treatment of animals and/or marginal cases.

Part 2: Take-aways from the AMC

At first glance, there seems to be two ways to resolve the inconsistency:

(1) we ought to
treat non-human animals much better (e.g. by banning factory farms)
(2) allow for marginal cases to be experimented on, tortured, farmed, and killed.*

Of these two options, the first seems to the more intuitive take-away. While it is more intuitive, it still has pretty radical implications. It would entail that we should all become vegans and perhaps ban the practice of animal farming altogether.

While I think it would be better for the animals, the planet, and for ourselves to cut out most or all meat from our diets, I think there is a compromise that could be made that ethically permits certain kinds of animal farming:

(3) neither the non-human animals or the marginal cases should be subjected to unnecessary pain and suffering, but we may allow for certain kinds of experimentation and livestock farming (of certain non-human animals and human marginal cases), provided there are no rights violations or extrinsic harms that result from such practices.

If we accept option 3, animal farming, where the animals are treated and slaughtered humanely, could be morally justified. It really hinges on whether animals and/or marginal cases have certain rights.

For instance, do animals or marginal cases have a right to life? It may not be immediately obvious what to say about this. However, the implications are clear enough. If animals lack a right to life, then so do the marginal cases (via AMC). If, on the other hand, animals and marginal cases do have a right to life, then experimentation and livestock farming (across species) would be immoral.

Adopting a basic theory of rights similar to the philosopher Michael Tooley’s (1984), I will assume that a creature has a right to X if it has a desire or preference to X, provided that such desires and preferences do not infringe upon the rights of others. This assumption accounts for the view that animals have rights not be subjected to unnecessary pain and suffering in light of the fact that such animals have a desire or preference to avoid pain and suffering. But having such a desire to go on living arguably requires the possession of self-consciousness (c.f. Singer 2011, Tooley 1983). That is to say, in order for the creature to have desires about its own life, it must have conception and memory of one’s self existing over time (past, present, and future).** Thus, creatures that are not self-conscious, do not have a right to life.

Even if one accepts my assumptions about rights possession, I take it that many would still have a strong intuition that it’s wrong to raise and kill mentally disabled babies for food. The philosopher Daniel Dombrowski asserts that it is “one of our strongest moral intuitions”, and argues that no one has provided any good reasons to think that this intuition is mistaken. (Dombrowski 1997, p 180). I agree with Dombrowski that we have this strong intuition, and that absent any defeaters, we have good reason to trust our intuitions (c.f. Huemer 2007 for a strong defense of ‘ethical intuitionism’). However, I think there has been a compelling debunking argument developed. In his 1984 book ‘Abortion and Infanticide’, Michael Tooley argues that the intuition—that it’s wrong to kill the mentally disabled—is recent in human history, and stems from Western religious views about souls and human dignity. Tooley’s theory may be controversial. But if the intuition really comes from religion, and we have reason to doubt that religion is authoritative, then we have reason to doubt the intuition.

There are additional reasons to question our intuitions about killing marginal cases. For one, most marginal cases have families who would be harmed by their deaths. We think it’s wrong to kill and eat babies because other people will be harmed (e.g. their family and society at large). If we are to assume that other people would be harmed in the process of baby farming, then we would be right to think it’s immoral. But I have only made the claim that insofar as there are no extrinsic harms that result from these practices, there is nothing morally objectionable to them. Given that both of these kinds of harm would qualify as extrinsic, my conditional claim remains standing. What I’m saying is that our moral intuitions may not be factoring in all of the stipulations laid out. Instead of just sticking to our pretheoretical moral intuitions, we ought to reevaluate the moral status of the action in light of the particular context.

In closing, the AMC gets us to reconsider our treatment of animals and marginal cases. If one accepts that the argument is sound, then whatever treatment is called for marginal cases, the same must follow for the non-human animals possessing the same morally relevant traits. The conclusion I have arrived at may be disturbing to some. But if you find it disturbing, then you should give up meat eating altogether and adopt (1), veganism, since the only other option (2) is even more disturbing.


*provided that we have the consent of family members and that either it is done in secret or with the approval of the general public.

**Now some animals that are raised and killed for food may have this capacity (e.g. pigs and dogs). However, it is doubtful that chickens, fish, and (especially) shrimp have such a capacity.

Works cited

Dombrowski, D. A. (1997). Babies and beasts: The argument from marginal cases. University of Illinois Press.
Huemer, M. (2007). Ethical intuitionism. Springer.
Singer, P. (2011). Practical ethics. Cambridge university press.
Tooley, M. (1984). Abortion and Infanticide. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Thinking for yourself

We live in an age where we are overloaded with information. To know what is going on in the world, what has happened in the past, and what may happen in the future, we often have to rely upon the testimony of journalists, government officials, civilians, military personnel, and experts. Without a foolproof way to determine who is telling the truth, there are those who advocate a rather extreme form of skepticism. It is not that they think we cannot know anything, but that our sources of knowledge are very limited. There are those who argue that certain kinds of testimony are either unreliable or that we cannot determine whether or not it is accurate. Specifically, the skepticism is generally directed at journalists (the “mainstream media”) and experts. But at times, testimony from other groups removed from the establishment is deemed reliable (e.g. certain government officials, civilians). Let’s call this view establishment skepticism (ES). Without journalists and experts, E-skeptics recommend the following two strategies for gaining knowledge.

      1)      Think for yourself
      2)    Rely solely upon personal experience and things you have seen firsthand

In this post, I will demonstrate why these strategies are prone to error and why dismissing certain kinds of testimony is not only misguided, but dangerous.

It’s generally a good idea to think for yourself. Provided that one knows how to employ valid reasoning and is well-informed about a given topic, independent thought can be useful in developing novel arguments and insights. But notice the potential pitfalls.

Suppose there is an individual who not only lacks (implicit or explicit) knowledge of basic logic, but who vehemently believes that fallacies (invalid arguments) are good arguments. It seems safe to say that it would be a bad idea for this person to think for themselves.

Suppose there is an individual who is capable of independent thought but has only encountered misleading evidence or false information. In this case, thinking for oneself will likely lead to many false conclusions given that the premises one has to work with are false.

In avoiding the pitfall of the second individual, how does one acquire good information? One might argue that a reliable way to get good information is through firsthand experience. If you are able to see with your own eyes that something is the case, how can you go wrong? Here are two ways:

(1)               Your sample size is too small
(2)             Your recollection of what you have seen is selective. We all have certain biases and tend to see what we want to see. [We tend to remember the hits and forget the misses].

Experts are in the business of correcting for all of the pitfalls previously discussed. To take two quick examples, they take into account the possibility of bias on the part of other researchers and have a solution for it (i.e. peer review), and they ensure that their sample sizes are large enough to make accurate generalizations. Nonetheless, experts sometimes get it wrong.

The most recent case of expert failure is the 2016 US presidential election. An often made argument by E-Skeptics goes as follows. The (polling) experts were wrong about Trump losing, therefore, experts, in general, are (probably) wrong about everything. This is a terrible argument and is patently fallacious. Consider the following parallel line of reasoning, which no reasonable person would accept.

Speedometers sometimes misrepresent the speed of a vehicle. Therefore, they always do (or get it wrong most of the time).

But the E-skeptic argument is even worse than this. The argument implicitly generalizes from polling experts to all experts. It would be like concluding, because speedometers sometimes misrepresent the speed of a vehicle, all measuring instruments are unreliable.

Not all domains of expertise are of equal epistemic authority. Polling experts have to work with data that is sometimes unreliable or hard to predict. So, pollsters will probably get it wrong a lot more often than experts in other fields (e.g. engineering, physics).

The relevant question to ask is, for a particular domain of expertise, “how often do the experts get it right?”

In the case of pollsters, some actually have a pretty good track record (e.g. 538). Even in the case of the recent US election, the state polls were off within a normal margin of error (1-3 percentage points), and even before the results came in, pollsters had warned about this possibility. The national polls weren’t that far off at all. Pollsters predicted that Clinton would win the popular vote by 3 percentage points. She won the popular vote by 2. More recent elections, such as the presidential election in France, have reminded us of the general reliability of election polling.

The reality is, we need to rely upon the testimony of experts and journalists in order to know what’s going on in the world. Thinking for yourself has its limitations, some of which I have already discussed, and we should be well aware of them. We do not have God-like powers to see everything in the world firsthand, so, we need to rely upon other people who have seen things firsthand, as well as those who have observed more indirect forms of evidence (e.g. archaeologists, geologists, astronomers). 

Now, we should not assume that experts are infallible. It’s possible that they could have employed bad reasoning to reach their conclusions, or that they are unaware of evidence that undermines their position, etc. Nonetheless, we are warranted in accepting expert testimony, as long as it is in general agreement by most of their peers, and there is no strong evidence that negates what they say.

Regularly watching the news, reading some articles or watching youtube documentaries does not make you an expert. Most of us cannot dedicate the time and energy to become well-informed about complex issues, so we have to rely upon the testimony of those who do. There’s a reason why we have graduate schools and advanced degrees. [This isn’t to say that one cannot become an expert after years of extensive study on one’s own. Only that, it takes a lot of time to become an expert and a graduate education is the most common, and, perhaps, most reliable way of gaining expertise.]

What’s the harm in considering journalists and experts to be generally unreliable sources? One harm is that someone might end up putting all of their trust into a dangerous and unreliable source (e.g. a corrupt politician). Tyranny usually begins with government leaders attacking the press while seeking public support for their policies through propaganda and lies. By selectively pointing out things that journalists or experts have gotten wrong, and by selectively pointing out the things they themselves have gotten right, authoritarian politicians try to mislead the public into thinking that they are the only reliable source of information. Note how the same bad argument mentioned earlier gets transformed into an argument for listening to certain politicians over everyone else.

Politician A is sometimes right about what he says. Therefore, he is probably right about most things.  

The relevant question to ask is “who has the better track record of getting things right? The experts or politician A?” But those who have already become won over by clever politicians will likely conclude that the politician has the better track. After all, they believe that the politician is the one stating the facts. If it gets to the point where the only justification for believing what the politician says is that he or she said it, we have a serious problem. There would seemingly be no line of argument that could be used to get them to change their closed minds. That’s why we need to ask ourselves and each other to provide some kind of non-circular justification for the beliefs we hold. I conclude with a few suggestions for preventing the kind of dangerous closed-mindness just discussed.

(1)               Read widely. Don’t get all of your information from a small set of sources. Read essays and articles written by those you disagree with (If liberal, read e.g. WSJ, Daily wire, or Fox from time to time. If conservative, read e.g. NYT, CNN or the Guardian from time to time).  
(2)             Make sure your arguments are logically valid (Ask: Would I accept the same argument form if applied to other contexts, or stated by other individuals?)
(3)              Communicate to people you disagree with. Try to understand why they believe what they believe, understand their arguments and reasons, and articulate why you hold your own views.

(4)             Have some humility. There are issues where even the experts reasonably disagree with one another. If it’s a controversial subject, don’t rest much weight on your conclusions and be open to entertaining alternative views. 

Related previous posts:

Sunday, May 21, 2017


Ontology is a sub-branch of metaphysics that deals with what kinds of things exist. At first pass, it might seem like scientists would be better authorities to consult than philosophers on what exists, but that would be to misunderstand the project of metaphysicians.  Unlike science, which refers to specific classes of physical objects (e.g. electrons, hydrogen, enzymes), metaphysics refers to the most general or abstract categories of things that exist: substances, properties, and kinds.*

To paraphrase the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, metaphysics deals with how things, in the broadest possible sense of the word ‘things’, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of ‘hang together’. Metaphysicians who specialize in ontology, work on determining what the things. Put more simply, they ask 'what kinds of things are there?' Taking a step back from level of analysis provided by physics, metaphysicians try to determine specifically what (if any) kinds of substances, properties, and kinds exist. To make things more concrete, let’s look closely at these concepts and see how views about them lead to interesting philosophical conclusions.


Substances are understood as the entities in which properties inhere. While controversial, there are those who believe there are two types of substances: physical and mental. Mental substances would include things like immaterial human minds and God. Physical substances would include all of the objects of scientific study (e.g. tables, bears, helium, etc.), as well as all of the other physical objects we encounter in everyday life (e.g. tables, chairs, Ipads). The view which states there are two types of substance is called substance dualism. An alternative view would be that there is only type of substance (substance monism). On physicalism, the view which states the one type of substance is physical, minds are considered to have a physical basis in the brain, and the existence of other kinds of immaterial substances, like God, are denied. 


Properties are understood as the entities that inhere in things (e.g. redness, circularity, positive charge). So, all of the red objects are thought to share the property of ‘redness’ in common, all of the circular objects have the property of ‘circularity’ in common, and so on. Just like for substances, there are property dualists who think there are two types of properties (i.e. mental and physical properties). Property dualists argue that mental properties cannot be fully explained by the physical properties of the brain. Mental properties are sometimes characterized as (strongly) emergent properties of the brain. Mental properties are thought to be dependent upon the brain, but something over and above brain processes. If we were to know everything about how the brain works, property dualists think there would still be the question of ‘why is conscious experience paired with brain activity of a certain kind?’ This is known as the hard problem of consciousness (Chalmers 1996). Physicalists see consciousness and other mental properties to be analogous to other biological properties, like digestion or photosynthesis. Photosynthesis may be an emergent phenomenon of biochemistry, but it is nothing over and above its underlying chemical properties. There are some physicalists who simply deny that there is hard problem. If one accepts that minds are identical to brains (c.f. mind-brain identity theory), then the question ‘why is A paired with B’ turns into the incoherent question of ‘why is A paired with itself?’


Kinds are groupings of objects (or substances) that share essential properties. For instance, gold is a chemical kind. All instances of gold will share certain chemical properties that are not shared by other chemical kinds (e.g. silver, potassium). Most of the kinds discussed by scientists are considered to be natural kinds, in that, the categories are taken to be individuated on an objective basis. It was not up to the scientists whether or not the whale was a mammal, the whale simply is a mammal, regardless of what humans believe. To better understand what a natural kind is, let’s contrast them with a clear case of an artificial kind: ‘pets’. The kind ‘pets’ include cats, dogs, parrots, and any of the other animals humans have adopted for companionship. Human interests determine which animals get selected as pets and which do not, and those interests vary depending on time and place. While there is some usefulness, for us, in using the category of ‘pets’, there is no property or cluster of properties that all of the pet animals have in common (other than certain groups of humans liking them). Thus, the kind ‘pets’ is not a natural kind.

There are also instances of categories in science where it looks as if scientists have to rely upon rather arbitrary categorization methods. In the case of counting the number of planets in our solar system, it used to be that there were 9, but after the discovery of additional Pluto-sized objects, Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet. Instead, scientists could have kept Pluto as a planet but just increase the number of planets from 9 to 13. 

To move to a particularly controversial example, take ‘race’. Should ‘race’ be considered a natural kind, or a category more like ‘planets’ or even ‘pets’? One consideration is that we know that humans are grouped differently around the world. The way we individuate races in the United States is different from how they distinguish races in other countries (e.g. Brazil). In the US, there are, roughly, five races (Black, white, American Indian/Alaskan native, Asian, and mixed). In Brazil, there are nine (see below). Anthropologists, who are the experts on human biodiversity, widely disagree about how to group humans, and come to widely different answers depending on their criteria of race individuation. Should we conclude that any single one of these groupings of humans is objectively correct? Or is it more plausible to assume that human interests primarily shape how we categorize human beings.

Real world applicability

While scientists are typically unaware of philosophical jargon, they draw conclusions and make statements that can be accurately characterized as rejecting or accepting controversial categories, like race, as instances of natural kinds. You also see among laypeople that certain assumptions are made about controversial categories. For example, take the kind ‘gender’. A widespread view is that ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are closely connected and that both are grounded in biology. One interpretation of the "common sense" view is that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are natural kinds in biology. An alternative view, held by both scientists and laypeople alike, is that ‘sex’ is a natural kind whereas ‘gender’ is an artificial social kind, one that varies according to human interests relative to time and place. Many proponents of this alternative view consider gender to be, what's referred to as, a social construction

People have pretty strong views about race and gender, views which are amenable to philosophical analysis. There are also those who are skeptical about the prospects of ever settling these areas of controversy. But if there is a fact of the matter with respect to the ontological status of these categories, one is going to have to do the philosophical work to sort out the answers. Empirical evidence alone will not tell you what ‘race’ or ‘gender’ is. After all, there are experts who are aware of all of the relevant evidence but yet disagree about the more philosophical issues. Even if a consensus among scientists were to form, one may still reasonably ask whether or not the scientists drew the right conclusions.

*Metaphysicians disagree about just about everything. My breakdown of the world's ontology is hardly original, and is just one way to do it among many. 

Works cited

Chalmers, D. J. (1996). The conscious mind: In search of a fundamental theory. Oxford University Press.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Alternative Archaeology: Gobekli Tepe and the Sphinx

On a recent JRE podcast, skeptic Michael Shermer went head-to-head with Graham Hancock and Randall Carlson, two proponents of alternative archaeological theories. The debate could be summarized as follows: Hancock and Carlson argued that the simplest explanation for the presence of ancient archaeological sites, like Gobekli tepe (below image) and the Sphinx, is that there was a transfer of knowledge from an unknown advanced civilization to the builders of those structures. Shermer argued against their thesis by citing the fact that most archaeologists dispute their claims, and that there is little to no positive evidence in favor of their hypotheses. According to Shermer, the default position should be to side with the majority of experts. 

The “mainstream” view among archaeologists is that the Gobekli Tepe site, found in southeast Turkey, was built by hunter gatherers around 9000 BC. Hancock and Carlson argue that the mainstream account is wrong because of the presence of several, otherwise inexplicable, anomalies. In response, Shermer accuses Hancock and Carlson of focusing on negative evidence rather than producing positive evidence for their view. Finding some problems with a well-established theory is easy to do. Finding good evidence for alternative theories is evidently very hard. How should a layperson adjudicate the debate between “mainstream” and “alternative” archaeologists? In this post, I will argue that Hancock and Carlson’s arguments for the existence of an unknown ancient civilization are not persuasive. In the process, I will critically assess some of the specific anomalies cited by Hancock and Carlson.

Before addressing their reasoning, it is useful to know the backgrounds of both Hancock and Carlson. Graham Hancock is an author and journalist who has written extensively about the mysteries of ancient civilizations. Randall Carlson describes himself on his website as a “master builder and architectural designer, teacher, geometrician, geomythologist, geological explorer and renegade scholar.” Neither are experts in archaeology, a discipline that seems most relevant to assessing their claims. However, their lack of credentials does not affect the quality of their arguments. They either have good reasons for accepting their views or they don’t.

Hancock argues that the presence of Gobekli Tepe cries out for an alternative explanation. Before 9000 BC, there is no archaeological record of the gradual development of skills and technology you would may expect to find. For example, archaeologists have not found less sophisticated stone structures found dated around twelve or thirteen thousand years ago. Gobekli Tepe is the oldest stone structure we have found and it appears as if its construction came out of nowhere. Without any evidence of older structures or ancient civilizations, what is the best explanation for its presence? Hancock argues that the best explanation is that an advanced civilization taught hunter gatherers how to build the stone structures. 

There are several problems with Hancock’s reasoning. First, he expects there to be archaeological evidence for the gradual development of skills, but apparently does not expect to find the same kinds of evidence for his proposed advanced civilization. Hancock’s only evidence for an advanced civilization is indirect: the mere existence of Gobekli Tepe. A second problem with Hancock’s argument is that he makes an assumption that he provides little warrant for: that hunter gatherers could not have learned how to build the structures on their own in a relatively short period of time (i.e. hundreds or thousands of years). Let’s compare Hancock’s hypothesis with some others.

Burst hypothesis: The skills required to build Gobekli Tepe were acquired and honed in a relatively short period of time (hundreds of years), solely by the hunter gatherers.

Gradualist hypothesis: There was a gradual development of skills but the evidence was not preserved well or it is all still underground.

As it stands, most would agree that there is probably much more evidence to uncover. But in order to favor Hancock’s Transfer of Knowledge (ToK) hypothesis, one would need to show that both the burst and gradualist hypotheses were less likely to be true. I take the ToK hypothesis to be the most extravagant because it posits the existence of a civilization we have no evidence for. The other hypotheses just make, in my view, reasonable assumptions about humans we know existed. How does Hancock try to establish that ToK is the best explanation? 

It seems like Hancock, Carlson, and Rogan are all incredulous about the burst hypothesis. But given that they all lack expertise in cognitive science and anthropology, they are not in a position to say what the limits of human cognition or social learning were at the time. Thus, they are committing the fallacious argument from personal incredulity. Hancock gives a second reason to reject the burst hypothesis. He points out that the mainstream archaeological community had long thought that hunter gatherers were not capable of building something like Gobekli Tepe. Experts no longer believe that in light of recent archaeological finds, such as Gobekli Tepe, that were undoubtedly built by hunter gatherers using stone age technology. Skeptical of the recent change of expert opinion, Hancock appeals to what the experts used to think to justify his belief that hunter gatherers couldn’t have pulled it off. 

Hancock is not in a position to rule out the gradualist hypothesis either. In order for his own hypothesis to be taken seriously, he needs to assume that there is a lot of hidden or destroyed archaeological evidence. But one would make the same assumption in order to support the gradualist hypothesis. Without any independent reason for favoring ToK over the gradualist hypothesis, it would seem that the simpler explanation would be the latter.

But of course, Hancock and Carlson do think there are independent reasons for positing the existence of a lost ancient civilization. They go even further when they suggest that this same lost ancient civilization was responsible for teaching many of the early civilizations (e.g. Egyptians) how to construct megaliths. Their evidence consists mostly of anomalies found in other archaeological sites that do not fit well with the standard accounts. One of the main pieces of evidence they refer to is the apparent water erosion on the enclosure walls of the Great Sphinx. The Great Sphinx is widely thought to have been built around 2500 BC. But in order for the weathering markings on the enclosure walls to form, you would need much more rain than was present at the time of its construction (1). So, if there was not enough rain around 2500 BC, then it must have been built much earlier than we previously thought (~6000 BC). That, or the idea that there is evidence of water erosion is simply mistaken.

The vast majority of archaeologists, geologists, and Egyptologists reject the water erosion hypothesis for two main reasons. First, the weathering marks can also be accounted for by other factors such as wind erosion, quarrying activities, or rainfall runoff (Reader 2001; 2006, Lacovara 2004, Vandercruys 2006). Second, there is no archaeological evidence of an advanced civilization around that area that predates the Egyptians. [It is often pointed out that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but that is only true when the evidence should not be expected. In the case of an advanced civilization, you would expect there to be some kind of evidence, not only for the civilization at its peak, but for the gradual development of the civilization. In this case, we have reasonable grounds for thinking that absence of evidence is in fact evidence of absence.]

The simplest explanation is that there was no water erosion from intense rainfall to begin with. Hancock and Carlson do not seem to take this possibility seriously, suggesting that either they know something the archaeological community does not (e.g. the weathering marks could only be caused by intense rainfall at an earlier time), or that they have missed something the archaeological community is aware of. The same possibility remains for the remainder of their "evidence". In interpreting the empirical record, expertise is sometimes required. Those who are lacking certain kinds of knowledge about, say, the methodology of geologists or archaeologists can easily go astray. Given that Hancock and Carlson do not have formal backgrounds in the relevant fields, it is possible that they have unwittingly misinterpreted the evidence. 

There is usually a good reason why alternative theories are given little weight. It's not that most scientists are closed-minded, it's that they are very skeptical. Alternative theories tend to be lacking in the evidence department, and so when they get criticized, the proponents often feel like they're getting an unfair shot. But given the nature of scientific inquiry, and the extravagance of many of the alternative theories, one should not expect anything different. If there was an advanced civilization that aided the hunter gatherers at Gobekli Tepe, it will take some high quality evidence to convince the scientific community. Hancock and Carlson should continue their research, but it's reasonable to conclude that they're probably wrong. 

(1)  Geologist Colin Reader (2001, 2006) has proposed that the Sphinx was built several hundred years before the mainstream timeline, a time in which there would have been enough rain to directly cause the weathering marks. 

Works cited

Peter Lacovara. (2004). The Pyramids, the sphinx: tombs and temples of Giza. Bunker Hill Publishing, Inc.

Reader, C. D. (2001). A Geomorphological Study of the Giza Necropolis, with Implications for the Development of the Site. Archaeometry, 43(1), 149-165.

Reader, C. (2006). Further considerations on development at Giza before the 4th Dynasty. PalArch’s Journal of Archaeology of Egypt/Egyptology, 3(2), 12-25.

Vandecruys, G. (2006). The Sphinx: dramatising data… and dating. PalArch’s Journal of Archaeology of Egypt, 1, 1-13. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Philosophy of science

The philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”

I believe the preceding quotation, often attributed to the great physicist Richard Feynman, captures a common sentiment among scientists. Philosophy of science is thought to be useless to practicing scientists. Why bother with philosophy when you could just do science? What exactly is philosophy of science, and why is it considered, by philosophers, to be a legitimate area of inquiry?

Philosophy of science, proper, deals with normative, epistemological, and metaphysical questions that concern all of the sciences. Here are five such examples:

o   What are the criteria for theory confirmation?
o   What makes a theory scientific?
o   What rational basis is there for making inductive inferences (reasoning from past cases to future ones)?
o   What kinds of metaphysical commitments do our best scientific theories have (e.g. should we believe the Higgs Boson exists?)?
o   Does science tell us about reality or only about appearances from the perspective of human beings? (Would space aliens develop scientific theories that are at odds with our own?)

Over the past few years, there has been a vocal group of scientists (e.g. Neil de Grasse Tyson, Peter Atkins, Lawrence Krauss) who think that reflecting upon on these kinds of questions are (1) irrelevant to their line of work, (2) trivially easy to answer, or pointless to ask, either because (3) there is no answer or that we could never know the correct one. A more general critique to philosophy of science as a whole is that it is alleged to be uninformed by contemporary science (4). In this post, I will address each of these contentions in turn.

(1)               Philosophy of science is irrelevant to practicing scientists

I think it’s true that scientists can go about their work without ever thinking about the philosophical assumptions that they make, but I think it's much less clear whether they should. But I do not know of any philosophers who think scientists need to do philosophy of science to become competent experimenters or to develop novel hypotheses to test. Hence, I think scientists who say that they don’t need to do philosophy of science are attacking a straw man. That isn’t to say that philosophy of science is of no use to scientists. On the contrary, I think it would be a good thing for scientists to be aware of the philosophical import of their views. Being aware of the assumptions one makes is the first step in determining whether or not those assumptions are warranted

The physicist Lawrence Krauss advances a pretty weak argument for why scientists philosophy is of little to no use for scientists. His reasoning? Because scientists, who do their jobs just fine, don’t read philosophy journals. The problem with Krauss’s argument is that it doesn’t tell you anything about whether the scientists who do keep up with philosophy of science are better or worse off. It could be philosophy of science is of use to scientists, but that most scientists have been missing out.

(2)             Philosophical questions about science are trivially easy to answer

The first thing to say about this is that these questions are not easy and those who think that they are probably haven’t thought much about them. If it’s so obvious, it should be easy to develop arguments and reasons for why theory A is preferable to theories B, C, and D. Without doing the work—in showing why their own assumptions are rationally defensible—it prevents them from entertaining alternative views that may be more plausible, given a different set of starting assumptions. Moreover, some of their scientist peers probably have the same attitude about their own views (i.e. they’re just obvious), preventing a proper debate about the issues to be had. Philosophers are in the business of revealing hidden assumptions in order to subject them to careful logical and conceptual analysis.

(3)              Philosophical questions about science are meaningless or impossible to answer

How do we answer the questions raised by philosophers of science? What all of these questions have in common is that you won’t solve them by doing science. Perhaps that is why scientists don’t really like to raise these questions. Their area of expertise is in addressing questions that could, in principle, be answered through experimentation and observation. But those are not the only ways to settle a debate. Scientists may not know how to answer normative, metaphysical, or epistemological questions, but it doesn’t follow that no one does. Philosophers have been making progress on these questions by clarifying the concepts and theories that have been advanced in trying to answer these questions. For example, in determining whether a theory is scientific or not, philosophers have put forward a number of views, each one building upon the successes and improving upon the faults of their predecessors. Scientists like to defer to the philosopher Karl Popper, in that science, unlike pseudoscience, is in the business of falsifying hypotheses, not confirming them. To just accept what Popper says at face value is to assume that no progress has been made on the question since the 1960’s. However, there are more recent views that are, in my view, much more plausible and nuanced (c.f. Lakatos 1978, Thagard 1978, Pigliucci and Boudry 2013).

(4)             Philosophers of science have not kept up with the science
Stephen Hawking has alleged that philosophy of science is a dead enterprise because philosophers have not kept up with modern science (Hawking and Mlodinow 2010). It is interesting to note that, in his book, Hawking provides no evidence to support his claim.  

Contrary to Hawking’s claims about philosophers, many have extensively studied the science relevant to the questions they work on. Taking a look at some of the prominent philosophers working on the foundations of physics, David Albert and David Wallace have PhD’s in physics, while others like Tim Maudlin have BA’s in physics and have displayed extensive knowledge of the field in technical papers and books. So while scientists concentrate more of their interests on conducting experiments and carrying out research, it is not as if philosophers of science are unaware of their projects. Philosophers keep themselves up to date with the scientific literature, all while continuing their work on solving the philosophical questions that have been lingering in the background all along.

Ever since science split off into all of its specialized sub-branches (e.g. biology, physics, psychology), new philosophical questions, specific to the subject matter of each particular field, began to surface. In turn, philosophers have become increasingly specialized to deal with such questions. To give three quick examples, philosophers of physics grapple with how to interpret experimental findings (e.g. double slit experiment) relevant to understanding quantum mechanics, philosophers of biology sort through controversies over how to understand the level (e.g. individual vs. group) at which natural selection takes place, and philosophers of psychology work on clarifying and analyzing the concepts used to explain cognition and behavior (e.g. ‘mental representation’). While scientists also grapple with many of these questions from time-to-time, the philosopher works full-time on these issues.


Just like there has been a division of labor among scientists with respect to a range of subject matter, there has been a division of intellectual labor among the kinds of questions that are raised in each field. Before the 20th century, most scientists, or natural philosophers, reflected upon both kinds of questions. Even within the 20th century, some of the greatest scientists (e.g. Einstein) carefully studied and reflected upon the philosophical issues related to their areas of study. This, rather recent, division of intellectual labor is not necessarily a bad thing, but it has led to a kind of rivalry between scientists and philosophers that is, in my view, mistaken. Science and philosophy go hand in hand in explaining the world and our place in it. Where science leaves off, philosophy takes over. This says nothing about whether one is more important or explanatorily privileged than the other. It is just to say that these are different endeavors, each sharing the same aim: knowledge and understanding.

Works cited

Hawking, S., & Mlodinow, L. (2010). The Grand Design: new answers to the ultimate question of life.

Lakatos, I. (1978). Science and pseudoscience. Philosophical papers, 1, 1-7.

Pigliucci, M., & Boudry, M. (Eds.). (2013). Philosophy of pseudoscience: reconsidering the demarcation problem. University of Chicago Press.

Thagard, P. R. (1978, January). Why astrology is a pseudoscience. In PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association (Vol. 1978, No. 1, pp. 223-234). Philosophy of Science

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Metaethical theories: semantics and ontology

We make value judgments about the actions of ourselves and others all of the time. We say things like: “It was morally wrong for Ted to lie to his wife”, “Given the options, she did the right thing”, “What I said was wrong”, and “It’s morally wrong to torture someone”. What do these kinds of value judgments mean? Are they statements of opinion or statements of fact? Why do we make such judgments? And how do we know what is right or wrong? Metaethics is the subbranch of ethics that deals with answering all of these questions. Metaethicists are interested in finding out what is going on when we make moral claims. Given that there are a wide range of questions that could be asked, it is useful to break Metaethics down into four sub-areas or topics:

Moral ontology- Are there moral facts

Moral semantics: What do our moral claims mean?

Moral psychology- Do we have an innate sense of morality (i.e. moral instincts)? Where do our moral judgments come from (reason or emotion)? What motivates us to engage in moral behavior?

Moral epistemology- How do we know what is right and wrong?

In this post, I will focus on moral ontology and semantics, following up with subsequent posts on moral psychology and moral epistemology.

People often dismiss questions when they hinge upon the meaning of words. But it’s important to carefully spell out how someone understands a concept in order to avoid confusion and talking past one another. If two people are using the same word in different ways, then they are not necessarily disagreeing. They disagree about what the word means, but they may not disagree about the topic that is at issue. Some disagreements can be alleviated by checking a dictionary. But that is only if the discussion hinges upon how a word is ordinarily used in the native language. Philosophical discussions of commonly used words, like ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’, are meant to give richer and more precise definitions of the concepts than necessary for having everyday conversations. Philosophers try to tease apart different theories of what these terms mean by testing them against possible counter examples and by looking for inconsistencies or variations of meaning in common usage.

What does it mean to say that abortion is wrong? There are a number of competing views, and many different ways of classifying them. Without trying to justify any one classification over another, let’s just say that there are those who say that statements about morality are propositions—statements about the world that are true or false—and those who deny that they are propositions (see chart 1). First, I'll discuss those who deny that moral statements are propositional.

Noncognitvists argue that moral claims are expressions of one’s emotional state (emotivism), prescriptions for how to act (prescriptivism), or an articulation of ones’ desires (desirism). To better understand these variations, here are noncognitivist translations of the sentence “abortion is wrong”:

Emotivism: Abortion, boo! (Giving birth, yay!).
Prescriptivism: No one should have abortions (Pregnant women should keep their babies).
Desirism: I desire that no one has an abortion (I desire that pregnant women deliver their babies).

Noncognitivists think that moral disagreements are misguided. When people argue about morality, they are really just exchanging their own emotions, desires, and prescriptions for good behavior, not making factual claims about value. It would be like two people arguing about whether licorice tastes good. (S1: Licorice, yuck! S2: Licorice, yum!)

Cognitivists argue that moral claims are meant to be factual claims. Nihilists think that moral claims are statements about how the world is, but that all they are all false. They argue that there are no such properties as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in the world, just link there are, presumably, no such properties as ‘being possessed by demons’, or ‘having the capacity for free energy’. Nihilists are then committed to two claims: one semantic, the other ontological.

Subjectivists think that moral statements have truth value (i.e. they are true or false), but that they refer to subjective properties, like funniness. If people are amused and laugh at a joke, then the joke is funny. Whether or not something has an objective property, like ‘squareness’, depends upon whether the object in question has certain features (e.g. four equal sides). If people come to believe that a square is a triangle, and start trying to push it through a triangular shaped hole, that does not make it a triangle. A square is a square because of features that are independent of what anyone thinks about it (c.f. Huemer 2007). On subjectivism, if someone believes that something is morally good, then it is. Mental states of subjects are the truth makers of moral statements. One variation of subjectivism is relativism, where something is good if there are individuals belonging to some culture/historical time period/belief system that think it’s good. Another would be divine command theory, which states that the mental states of a particular subject (i.e. God) determines moral truth.

Lastly, there are the objectivists. Moral objectivity is often defined in various ways, but here is a characterization that I find plausible. Moral statements are objective if they are constitutively independent of human attitudes (c.f. Huemer 2007), eternal (their truth value does not change over time), and universal (apply to all rational agents). Objectivists roughly fall under two camps: reductionists and nonreductionists. Reductionists think that moral language, such as ‘good’ or ‘wrongness’ are about objective properties in the world, but that they can be translated or reduced to, for example, properties detectable via the scientific method (e.g. happiness levels of conscious creatures). There are many scientists and science popularizers that are proponents of such a view (Harris 2011, Shermer 2015).

Nonreductionists think that moral properties cannot be reduced to statements that refer to natural properties. One variation of nonreductionism is intuitionism, which states that moral properties are objective, but that they can only be characterized by words like ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’, and ‘wrong’. Certain actions are wrong because they are just wrong. While this may sound circular, the same kind of circularity is used to explain why basic logical and mathematical facts are true. Why is 2+2=4? Why is it the case that if B is larger than A and C is larger than B, that C is larger than A? Some claims are just self-evidently true, requiring no further explanation. 

A final distinction is between singularism and pluralism about objective morality. There are those who think there is only one correct set of moral guidelines and duties, and those who think there are alternative sets of moral frameworks, perhaps relative to different kinds of rational agents (e.g. space aliens). 

With such a diverse pool of views on the semantics and ontology of moral statements, where does one even begin? Like any other philosophical issues, these views need to be argued for and only one of them can be correct. While discussions of moral semantics and ontology are only typically found in the seminar halls of a philosophy department, these issues matter. 
Throughout history, humans have taken morality so seriously that they have gone to war over disagreements about value and how societies should be structured. If someone claims to be a nihilist or a relativist, then it might be irrational to engage in moral arguments with other people. Likewise, if someone is claiming that there are objective right and wrong answers, then they are committing themselves to some version of objectivism. No matter how hard one may try to avoid doing moral philosophy, everyone is committed to some kind of metaethical view, and we should try to reflect upon its sustainability in light of philosophical objections and relative strengths/weaknesses of the competing alternatives. 

Supplementary material

Chart 1.

Chart 2. 

Further reading

Works cited

Harris, S. (2011). The moral landscape: How science can determine human values. Simon and Schuster.

Huemer, M. (2007). Ethical intuitionism. Springer.

Shermer, M. (2015). The moral arc: How science and reason lead humanity toward truth, justice, and freedom. Macmillan.