May 24, 2012

Sam George


On what epistemological grounds do we make scientific truth claims? In Error and the Growth of Experimental Knowledge (all page numbers without an author’s name preceding them refer to this text), Deborah Mayo claims the appropriate focus is on small-scale statistical inferences grounded in actual experimental practice (p. 59). Rather than exclusively seeking experimental results that support or cast doubt on a theory-laden supposition, Mayo asserts along with the New Experimentalists that “experimental knowledge remains despite theory change” (p. 62). This puts her in direct opposition to the proponents of the Bayesian Way. The various branches of Bayesianism strongly assert a theoretical presumption that prior degrees of belief are modified by the evidence to yield posterior degrees of belief. Mayo concedes that statistical testing approach results can be reconstructed after the fact by the Bayesian approach, yet one of her basic theses is that the Bayesian approach is not and cannot be the method used by scientists who seek the growth of experimental knowledge. Even though masterpieces of painting, such as the Mona Lisa, can be reproduced by children following a paint-by-the-numbers kit, this does not mean that the original artist did or even could make his or her original contributions through such a method.


Mayo began her pointed critique of Bayesianism with a contrast between evidential-relationship and testing approaches.

E-R approaches . . . commonly seek quantitative measures of the bearing of evidence on hypotheses. What I call testing approaches, in contrast, focus on finding general methods or procedures of testing with certain good properties. (p. 72)

A major difference between the two is that E-R approaches generally (although not exclusively) assign probabilities to hypotheses, while testing approaches do not. Objective Bayesians in the tradition of Rudolph Carnap attempted to deduce the prior probabilities from the logical structure of some first-order language (p. 73). Unfortunately, the first-order languages used were inadequate to articulate actual science. The majority of Bayesians, on the other hand, subscribe to subjective degrees of belief for prior probabilities. Mayo quotes Howson and Urbach,

we are under no obligation to legislate concerning the method people adopt for assigning prior probabilities. These are supposed merely to characterise their beliefs subject to the sole constraint of consistency with the probability calculus (p. 75).

Strict Bayesians must accept that different persons will have radically dissimilar opinions, both between people and also for the same person from time to time. The Bayesian Way provides for them the only rational method of fitting together prior and posterior degrees of belief via Bayes’s theorem. The argument goes along the lines that “if we are rational, we will be coherent in the Bayesian sense” (p. 76), e.g. avoiding Dutch Book arguments, which would insure that the gambler would lose money. Mayo quoted the Bayesian Leonard Savage as writing “that the theory of personal probability ‘is a code of consistency for the person applying it, not a system of predictions about the world around him’” (p. 76).
E-R approaches ultimately lead to subjectivism, according to Mayo. While some things, such as binomial probabilities, can be calculated in an objective fashion, other probabilities — such as the composition of matter by atoms — can never be rigorously objective. Were we in the context of multiple universes, it would make sense to talk about a given hypothesis, H, having a nontrivial probability in a given universe. A person without complete knowledge, on the other hand, could meaningfully assign a subjective degree of belief between 0 and 1 for H even in a model of a singular universe.
Bayes’s Theorem can be generalized from probability theory.

For an exhaustive set of disjoint hypotheses, H1, H2. . ., Hn, whose probabilities are not zero, and outcome e where P(e) > 0:

P(H1|e) = _________________________________________

P(e|H1)P(H1) + P(e|H2)P(H2) + . . . + P(e|Hn)P(Hn)
(pp. 81-82).

In certain well-defined cases, such as Mayo’s contrived second-order game of playing rouge et noir OR single-number roulette determined by the flip of a coin, the theorem works well and non-Bayesians agree with Bayesians on the appropriateness of the application. The rub comes, of course, when there are not well-defined and objective prior probabilities, as will be the case the vast majority of the time. The common person (along with the statistically-minded individual) will want to know how well a Bayesian model corresponds to reality; to the Bayesians, however, the issue is coherence, not correspondence.
Mayo pointed out that the Bayesians often defend themselves with the assertion that the differences in prior probabilities make no difference in posterior probabilities with sufficient additional evidence. This is not a credible defense of the Bayesian Way for Mayo for at least the reasons that (1) some agents could assign zero probabilities and different agents could disagree among themselves as to the assignments of other degrees of belief, and (2) the Bayesian Way claims to be a good (according to Howson and Urbach THE ONLY good) way for evaluating non-statistical as well as statistical hypotheses. Howson and Urbach apparently also claim the whole point of (Bayesian) inductive reasoning is inference from premise(s) to conclusion (p. 85). Analogously to deductive reasoning, the point is not the truth of the premises–that much to them is irrelevant–but the form of the inference. According to Mayo, this move seems to be an attempt to subsume induction under deduction, making an ampliative deduction, and as such, this Bayesian assertion seems immediately suspect at the very best.
This is the heart of the controversy, according to Mayo: a basic difference in the aims of the Bayesians from the various non-Bayesians. Agreeing to disagree with the Bayesians over the goals of an ampliative induction removes much of the controversy between the two groups, she claims. Mainstream statistical reasoning fails by Bayesian standards, as does the Bayesian Way fail by normative statistical standards. Is there room here for compromise? “Conceding the limited scope of the Bayesian algorithm might free the Bayesian to concede that additional methods are needed, if only to fill out the Bayesian account” (p. 86). Unfortunately, the strictest Bayesians do not appear likely to concede their major thesis that “All You Need is Bayes” to quote Mayo’s (p. 88) paraphrasing the Beatles. Without an imperialist perspective, the Bayesian Way becomes one tool among a set of many other tools (which in my judgment is how it ought to be–more on this at the end of the paper). Bayesians of the Howson and Urbach variety wish to demote mainstream scientists as being somehow covert Bayesian agents to the extent that they are producing any useful results. Of course, this can only be maintained by the most dogmatic ideologue–mainstream science can and does get along quite nicely without subjective Bayesianism (p. 89). “The Bayesian model is neater [than error statistics methods], but it does not fit the actual procedure of inquiry” (p. 99).


The first question in evaluating Mayo’s critique of the Bayesians is whether or not she has represented them accurately. Some important points of Mayo’s inadequacy should be addressed, including Bayesian extremism and the direction of movement from prior to posterior degrees of belief.
While the various flavors of Bayesians would take different positions on the issue, the plain vanilla ones–such as Howson and Urbach–are uncompromising absolutists–their way or no way, “Bayes or Bust” (p. 84). Knowing what I now know about statistically-based reasoning, this assertion borders on the absurd. Surely someone can be a rational agent without following the Bayesian Way or even a way that could be approximated by Bayesianism. Yet just because the Bayesians stake an extremist claim, is that warranted grounds to dismiss their reasoning? Certainly not, for some truths are radical truths not admitting of compromise. As unlikely as it seems, it may indeed be the case that it is indeed a matter of Bayes or bust, and an implied ridicule of such a position is not helpful.
Mayo quotes Kyburg as saying,

for any body of evidence there are prior probabilities in a hypothesis H that, while nonextreme, will result in the two scientists having posterior probabilities in H that differ by as much as one wants (p. 84f).

This point is technically true, but misleading. Starting off, any two scientists could have such different prior degrees of belief that the posterior probabilities can be as arbitrarily far apart as one would like to make them, but the important thing to note is the direction of the movement. With additional evidence, the posterior probabilities will converge on the actual value. The difference will indeed wash out, it is not a matter of movement away from the actual value.
Mayo’s basic thesis, that the Bayesian Way does not reflect scientific practice, is well-taken. We do well to recall “considerations of probability have played an important part in the history of science, [but] until very recently, explicit probabilistic arguments for the confirmation of various theories, or probabilistic analyses of data, have been great rarities in the history of science” (Papineau, p. 292). The analogy comes to mind with recent developments in Kosovo: after NATO airstrikes apparently forced Serbian forces out of Kosovo, the Russian military has moved in, claiming critical strategic positions. Likewise, after centuries of painstaking progress, mainstream scientists find a noisy bunch of Bayesians laying claim (in this case) to the entire field of enterprise.
I find Bayesian imperialist claims to be obnoxious and overstated. That statistically-based evaluation can be reproduced after the fact by Bayesian algorithms does not demonstrate that the Bayesian Way is even equal to, much less superior to, statistics. Indeed, the Mona Lisa can be reproduced by a child using a paint-by-the-numbers kit, but no artist worthy of the title paints in such a fashion.
Mayo claimed the Bayesian model was neater (p. 99), but it seems to me that keeping track of successive generation of prior and posterior probabilities would become incredibly cumbersome, even in an age of computers. The theory certainly has an elegant simplicity to it, but in practice, it would be far too complex to execute. Again, the theory does not fit accepted scientific practice.


Most generally, are people inclined to be Bayesians? If this were the natural inclination of human beings in evaluating logical inferences, such would be a powerful (albeit nonconclusive) argument in favor of Bayesianism. Apparently most Bayesians believe as much, such as “what we ourselves take to be correct inductive reasoning is Bayesian in character that there should be observable and sometimes systematic deviations from Bayesian precepts” (Howson and Urback, p. 423). This strikes mf belief in what I have said, but it seems reasonable to propose that most of the putatively rational agents in my classes will have at least a significant degree of belief in my words, yet I always have some students who attend class erratically at best and still claim that they expect to pass, even when they have failed every assignment all semester long. Hence it seems that Bayesianism is not normative among scientists and is not the exclusive course of action of all putatively rational individuals in everyday life.
Bayesians are dogmatic imperialists. This seems most convenient for the Bayesians; it sounds analogous to asking a person of great faith if there is a God. “Of course there is,” might be the initial reply. “What about the presence of evil?” might be the next question, to which the next answer might be, “Evil only exists to sort the faithful from the non-faithful.” In short, the person’s belief system is non-falsifiable–there is no evidence one could bring to such a person that would change his or her beliefs. The opportunities for a strict Bayesian to admit of error also seem diminishingly small. However, despite the epistemic circle of coherence within which the Bayesians confine themselves, the rest of the world does want to know if something is true, not simply if it is self-consistent. I am always disturbed when ideology takes precedence over correct reasoning. In this regard, the orthodox Bayesians are as obnoxious as any group of religious fundamentalists, which is rather ironic given the subject matter of the Bayesian faith. Yet, as Mayo pointed out, Bayesians are not speaking in the same categories as concern the rest of us–they are making puddings, while statisticians and other error-conscious reasoners are making entrees of various kinds. The problem is that the Bayesians insist that there is no need of anything else, that pudding is by itself sufficient, and that simply cannot be the case. Pudding has its proper place, but it does not have the nutritional value to support a human being by itself, and any person who tried to subsist on pudding alone would rapidly succumb to the diseases of malnutrition. Likewise, a pseudo-science confined to Bayesian orthodoxy would not permit the kind of explosion of knowledge humanity has witnessed over the past few hundred years–it simply is not the way science is or should be done.
As I said earlier, that one makes extreme claims does not rule out the truth of one’s position. However, for an extraordinary claim that purports to account for all science, the Bayesian Way must offer extraordinary proof of its position, and I fail to see as much. I believe Bayesianism could and should be retained as one tool among many. Mayo implies as much through the discussion on pages 86-88. I can imagine situations wherein a Bayesian approach could give useful information, even without completely objective prior degrees of belief. I did not spend much time watching the trial of O.J. Simpson, but it seems to me that the prosecution could have profitably cited Bayes’s theorem. Certainly not ALL abused women who are murdered are murdered by their husbands/boyfriends–perhaps police statistics would indicate that only 75% of that population were killed by their significant others–certainly not a powerful enough argument by itself to satisfy the American legal system’s standards for determining guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That statistic, though, could credibly serve as a Bayesian prior belief and interact with the evidence of the blood tests (which also have well-documented statistical probabilities) to yield a posterior degree of belief that would be highly unfavorable for the defense. Of course, such would not prove Mr. Simpson’s guilt in any deductively valid fashion, but it would make for a strongly persuasive argument.
Generally, it seems to me, Bayesianism is at its strongest when dealing with the subjective decisions of human beings. Mayo only alluded to this briefly. However, it seems good to me as well that we bring to the surface all of our implicit reasoning and avail ourselves of all the tools at our disposal when making important decisions, and in this more limited sense, the Bayesian Way is a useful tool among others.


Howson, Colin and Urbach, Peter. Scientific Reasoning: The Bayesian Approach,
second edition. Open Court: Chicago and La Salle, IL, 1989, 1993.

Mayo, Deborah G. Error and the Growth of Experimental Knowledge.
The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 1996.

Papineau, David, ed. The Philosophy of Science. Oxford University Press: New York,


Unintelligent Design

November 14, 2010

Since the American courts have consistently ruled against indoctrinating students in public schools with religious ideas, those seeking to introduce God into school have in the last few years tried a different tactic from Creationism, claiming that the universe (culminating in personhood) is so improbable to be so perfect that it must be the product of some “Intelligence” (not otherwise named, although it’s pretty clear whom they are talking about).

The courts have regularly ruled that Intelligent Design is nothing more than Creationism with different words, so those seeking to interject religion into public school curricula will have to try again.

Indeed, it is improbable that the universe would have given rise to life as we know it and especially humanity. If conditions weren’t just right for the arrival of homo sapiens, we wouldn’t be here to wonder about it. Let me examine a few of the more obvious examples, then, to demonstrate that the courts have been right in this ruling.
(1) Not all humans are perfect. While some people, say, with less-severe cases of Down’s Syndrome, can have happy, meaningful lives, others will lead lives confined to the cradle. Some handicapable people can compete in the Special Olympics, but most others will have nothing much to look forward to.
(2) The blind spot shouldn’t exist. In optics, the light has to be focused on the optic nerve for us to see, but we can’t see in that spot, hence the term blind spot. Surely an infinite God could design the human eye without this flaw.
Mostly, though, in this essay I’d like to talk about the difference between short-term pain and long-term pain. Short-term pain (STP) serves a very useful purpose in alerting us that something is wrong. If you burn your hand, STP alerts you not to touch the burned area, or to have any other contact with it. The burn eventually heals, the pain stops, and you return to life as usual, using the hand as you did before (although you might end up being more careful around hot surfaces and substances). No problemo!
However, what if you burned your hand so extensively as to have permanent nerve damage? Then, even when the skin grafts have taken and your healing is complete, your hand continues to throb as much as it ever did. This long-term pain (LTP) serves no biological purpose, it seems to be a mistake in our biological processes. In my own case, it will soon be my six year anniversary of being continuously in pain from migraines; even when I’m not actively hurting, I have migraine side effects like continuous photophobia. Perhaps in the future they’ll be able to either to amputate LTP or at least block it with better medicines or procedures than we have now.

My point is that we shouldn’t have LTP at all, for burns, migraines, or anything else. Some people shouldn’t be born with mental or physical challenges. Troublesome anatomical features like the blind spot shouldn’t burden us. If this is the pinnacle of perfection that creationists site, I want no part of their agenda!

Epistemic Circles

June 15, 2010

The dedicated Mormon missionaries knock on Mac’s door.  “Hello, we’re Mormon missionaries and we’d like for you to become a Mormon, too!”

“Why should I become a Mormon?”

“Well, it says in the Book of Mormon…”

“Hold it right there!  I don’t want to hear a reason from the Book of Mormon, I want to hear one from the Bible!”

A circular argument is an argument in which you have to assume the premise in order to reach the conclusion, e.g.:

How do you know I’m trustworthy?  Well, it so happens I AM trustworthy, so when I tell you I’m trustworthy, you know you can believe it!

T v ~T/T?                         Trustworthy or NotTrustworthy, therefore Trustworthy?

(1)     T v ~T                                                                      Trustworthy or NotTrustworthy

(2)     ~T -> ~T                   (1) implication                     NotTrustworthy implies NotTrustworthy

(3)     T -> T                       (2) transposition                  Trustworthy implies Trustworthy

(4)     T                              assertion                                               Trustworthy

Therefore, T                  3 & 4 modus ponens               (I am) Trustworthy.

The fallacy, of course, is in line 4: there is no logical reason to assert I am trustworthy, T.  I could just as easily be untrustworthy, ~T.  Just because I claim trustworthiness does not make me trustworthy (in real life, experience demonstrates that usually people insisting on their trustworthiness are more likely to be untrustworthy).  So from the tautology T v ~T, all I can validly prove is T v ~T (or some other tautology) again.

In the absence of external proof, I cannot prove

  • I am trustworthy;
  • Mormonism is superior to Methodism; or even
  • Faith is superior to no faith

For in each case, I am caught in a circular argument in what I can demonstrate or know.  We generally consider circular arguments to be fallacies, that is, they sound persuasive at first, but on closer examination turn out to be false.

Epistemic circles are not limited to character or religion.  Consider inductive reasoning versus deductive reasoning.  Inductive reasoning is what we use to describe, explain, and predict the real world.  How do I know if it’s raining?  I look out the window or put my hand out the door or feel the ground to see if it is wet.  When we depend on the senses, though, we introduce a measure of unreliability—our senses can be fooled (or perhaps we are trapped in The Matrix, being fed false data).  For absolute certainty, we must turn to deductive reasoning, where the form of the argument guarantees the result.  For instance:

(1)     R -> W                     If it is raining, the ground will be wet.

(2)     R                              It is raining.

Therefore W, the ground will be wet. 

This is a form of argument so common and so important that it has its own name, modus ponens.  It works no matter the contents of R and W; so long as 1 and 2 (the premises) are true, W (the conclusion) inexorably follows.  This seems pretty nifty, right?  The problem is, though, that it doesn’t tell us whether or not it is raining here now.  Deductive logic is like a chess board or a computer program, suspended in time with no connection to the real world.  We can call it a well-ordered system, internally coherent and the like, but like its cousin arithmetic, it does not exist in what we call the real world.  When done right, you can make some very sophisticated, even beautiful and elegant, arguments within either inductive and deductive logic, but you’re still operating within an epistemic circle.

Beyond character, religion, and logic, though, I would argue the entire rational enterprise is also trapped within an epistemic circle.  Why be rational?  I can offer a lot of rational reasons to promote rationality, but that is the type of reasoning we claim to want to avoid.  R v ~R?  Without a reason to prefer R over ~R, the two must be equally weighted.  Only a rational person would always choose rationality…right?  To do otherwise would be…irrational….  So to break the epistemic circle, I must find an irrational reason to favor rationality over irrationality.  The best I’ve been able to come up with thus far is an aesthetic argument:  I find it more beautiful to be rational than irrational.  This seems a feeble defense of some 50,000+ years of civilization and the conquest of irrationality by the forces of rationality.  Just because I have a subjective preference for rationality doesn’t mean that all people will find it equally attractive.  Indeed, some rational people make the argument that civilization has been a failure, thus humans should return to the wilds from which we came, ~R.  So, using rational arguments, we seem to’ve only demonstrated that rationality is not as foundational as we’ve always thought.  We are caught on a precarious perch.

Perhaps the best approach, then, is not to try to break out of the epistemic circle, but to make the circle bigger.  Let’s imagine a literal, mathematical circle, say  x2 + y2 = c2.  When c2=1, we have a circle with a radius of 1, centered at the coordinate (0,0).  When c=2, we have a circle with a radius of 2, centered at (0,0), and so on.  If a horizontal line (a line with a slope of 0) represents perfect rationality, all of these circles will only be perfectly rational at the two points where x=0, namely (0,c) and (0,-c).  The farther away from the x-axis we get, the less rational they are.  But as c increases without bound, the more closely the neighborhoods of (0,c) and (0,-c) will resemble pure rationality.  So trivial circular reasoning like “I am trustworthy” is easily recognized and dismissed as faulty, while more advanced circularities require more thought—and more humility as to the limits of human rationality.

PARABLE OF AMERICA (an allegory about gay marriage)

December 21, 2009

            Once upon a time, there was a small village in our land; the village was named “America.”  Because the village was so small, there was only one church, America Baptist Church.

            One fine day at choir practice, Steve asked why all the baptisms at ABC were by full immersion.  “Surely some people are too scared of the water to go all the way under,” he said.  The choir members suggested Steve go to the Board of Deacons.

            Unfortunately, the deacons were not pleased with Steve’s question.  They said only deviant people even considered such things.  Baptisms were always by full immersion and that was the way it had always been.  In truth, one of the deacons had been sprinkled as a child in another village, but it was a secret he was determined to take to his grave.

            “I don’t want to be fully immersed, I want to be sprinkled,” declared Steve.  “No one else wants to be sprinkled,” replied the deacons, “so why must you be so difficult?”  Steve started asking the people at ABC and discovered about 10% agreed with his views on baptism and other things, too.

            Steve and his friends decided if they did not fit in with the way things were done at ABC, they would form their own church, to be named America Methodist Church.  There was an old, abandoned community center downtown that had been an eyesore for many years, but Steve and his friends thought with some loving renovation it would make a splendid home for the AMC.

            Steve asked the Town Council if he could buy the community center from the town so that AMC could renovate it and make it their beautiful new sanctuary.  Sadly, though, all of the members of the Town Council were also members of ABC; they declared that Steve did not have the right to submit a bid on the property.

            Steve and his friends were upset they had been denied their opportunity.  Leslie suggested talking to the American Civil Liberties Union, which they did.  With the help of the ACLU, Steve and Leslie and the other prospective members of the AMC sued the Town Council for the right to purchase the property.  Although Steve was no longer alone, he was being called “unpatriotic,” “ungodly,” and many other unkind things.  Some people would no longer talk to him in public and he started receiving hate mail.

            During the trial, people said many things.  The chair of the deacons claimed that it would weaken the institution of baptism at ABC if Methodists were allowed to sprinkle.  Leslie answered that the folks of ABC were quite welcome to continue to practice baptism as they saw fit, but the folks of AMC should be entitled to do it their own way.  The judge listened carefully to what both sides said and eventually ruled that Methodists were entitled to the same rights as every other person in America and that Steve and Leslie and the others had the right to bid on the abandoned community center.

            Elections for Town Council were held not long after the judge issued her ruling.  Steve decided he would run for election on a pro-AMC platform.  However, the Mayor declared he thought that America should have only one church and proposed that the Town Council pass a “Protection of Baptism” act that would designate America as a sprinkling-free zone and turn the old community center into a Sanctity of Baptism Memorial.  Many people who personally agreed with baptism by immersion thought that the Mayor and Town Council were going too far in trying to contradict the judge and restrict the rights of the Methodists.  However, 56% of the people who went to the polls agreed with the Mayor, and to this day, America has only one church.

The Problem of Evil

October 6, 2009

As classically understood,
(1) God is omnipotent [capable of doing anything];
(2) God is good [and it is assumed that good eradicates evil whenever possible]; and
(3) Evil exists.
As philosophers have pointed out for a very long time, however, you can’t hold all three of these beliefs at the same time without generating a contradiction:
If you hold (1) and (2) at the same time, then there can be no evil, for God wants to destroy evil and is completely capable of doing so. At most, evil is an illusion; God is enthroned in Heaven and all is right on Earth. Imagine a small child is about to pick up a rattlesnake—the parent does nothing, for there isn’t REALLY a rattlesnake there (and if you and I had enough faith, we would recognize the glorious truth).
If you hold (1) and (3) at the same time, God is not completely good, for God could eradicate evil but chooses not to do so. Human good is really too trivial a matter for Almighty God. Imagine a small child is about to pick up a rattlesnake—the child’s parent could stop it, but instead says, “My child needs to learn not to pick up snakes.”
If you hold (2) and (3) together, then God loves us and wants to protect us, but isn’t capable of doing so. God has limits just like everything else. Imagine a small child is about to pick up a rattlesnake—the parent watches in horror as the snake bites the child before the parent can get there.
Of course, one could just hold to any one of these positions and reject the other two or reject all three at the same time.
So which is it? Holding all three positions at the same time means rejecting rationality, but rejecting some or all of the propositions means abandoning classical religious positions. Claiming that the answer is a mystery is not far removed from the Fideist position.
Assuming that there is a God, my best answer is a variation of rejecting (1). If God made the universe, God mapped it out as a painfully rational place. Particularly at the macro level, physical laws are fairly evident and mostly understood. Things happen for a reason. Within our universe, then, it doesn’t make sense for God to violate the laws of nature or defy rationality. As long as God works within our universe, God has to abide by physical rules. Imagine you were playing a classic game of Monopoly with God. God rolls doubles once…twice…a third time in a row. Doesn’t God have to go to jail? Is there any way God can avoid going to jail? If God says, “the Almighty does NOT go to jail!” we have an old-fashioned name for that: cheating. I’m assuming God is above cheating at Monopoly and I will posit that God is not going to cheat in our physical universe, either. God can do those things that are physically and rationally possible, but no, God can’t and won’t generate a paradox by creating a rock so heavy God can’t lift it. Perhaps that protects us, as the physical laws of the universe might unwind under the tear of a contradiction.
So as for those evil things that happen every day, God weeps for the innocent, but God cannot be everywhere at once and do everything at once, for that is not rationally possible.

A Case for Vegetarianism

May 26, 2009

For me, it all boils down to one question: do animals feel pain in a way that I and others would recognize as pain?  That requires a nervous system and especially a functioning brain, so for fungi, plants, and lower and immature animals, the answer is no.  Even with this definition there is plenty of meat I think most of us would pass on in most situations, including dear Rover who just died of old age, developed embryos of most species (as opposed to eggs), and senile Granny.

But if an animal can feel pain, if I owe it any rights at all, I owe it the right not to have pain inflicted on it by me or on my behalf.  Ok, so admittedly, we could confine ourselves to eating those higher animals that died of old age—but that would immediately cut down the supply of meat and dramatically increase the price.  To have a mass market in meat, we will have to kill animals in their prime.  Is there, then a pain-free way to kill an animal?  “Sure,” you reply, “when Coco was dying from cancer last year, we took her to the vet, who gave her a couple of shots and she just went to sleep; we all cried a lot, but Coco didn’t suffer!”  Nice try, but those chemicals would make an animal unfit to eat.

Historically, the “best” way to kill larger food animals like cows and pigs was to hoist them up by their rear legs, slit their throats, and let them bleed to death, since meat tastes better with the blood drained out of it.  Nowadays the food industry uses putatively more humane methods, such as inserting an electrified needle into the animal’s brain, which is supposed to kill it almost instantly.  “Supposed to,” of course, since it doesn’t always work, which is why they have to keep baseball bats handy….  I don’t think even the meat industry claims their methods are absolutely cruelty free (if they were so terrific, why don’t we use them for human executions instead of our current methods), but simply as humane as possible.  Is that much consolation, you think, to the animal in pain?

Of course, the cruelty is not limited to end-of-life issues in agribusiness.  Take a sheet of writing paper and fold it in half.  That’s approximately the size allotted to the average chicken on a typical chicken farm, that is to say, very nearly the size of the chicken itself.  The chickens are kept in wire mesh cages their entire lives, seldom or never seeing the sun.  As you know, birds’ feet by default curl, so as they grow, it’s not uncommon for the immobile chickens’ feet to grow into the wire mesh.  To keep the birds from pecking each other to death, the farmers often amputate their beaks.

Cows are fed mainly a diet of corn, which their digestive systems were not designed to handle.  Among other side effects, this leaves them with weakened immune systems and vulnerable to infections, so they are commonly given antibiotics (and bovine growth hormone to fatten them for market faster, too).  Tip: those routine antibiotics are a major part of the reason we’re seeing the growth of super bugs like MRSA that won’t respond to most antibiotics.

In breeding pigs to grow as fast as possible, a genetic defect was introduced such that when the pigs panic, their flesh begins to melt down and becomes unfit for human consumption.  Anyone who’s owned a pet pig can tell you that they are very intelligent.  Apparently quite a few of them figure out what’s happening on the way into the slaughterhouse and there’s enormous waste.

A normal, healthy human adult can get all the protein and every other nutritional need from plant sources with an eye on nutrition; it’s even easier if you allow animal products like eggs, cheese, milk, honey, or even shellfish, etc.

Eggplant lasagna, anyone?

Is Dr. Who Human?

May 1, 2009

I’m afraid I’m not going to have any easy answers on this one.  We have an intuitive sense of what separates the human from the non-human, but pinning it down exactly turns out to be a much more difficult task than it at first appears.  Let’s try some obvious and classical answers.

Humans are rational.

No.  Lots of animals have more rational capacity than newborns, the demented, and some of the mentally challenged.  Besides, if you’re talking computational ability, do you really want to propose a PC as human?

Humans use language.

No.  Creatures as simple as bees use gestures and pheromones that are arguably a kind of language.  Chimps have been taught to use at least rudimentary sign language, and have even been observed teaching it to their offspring.  Admittedly, it’s hotly contested what constitutes linguistic usage and the depths to which chimps genuinely grasp syntax, grammar, and all the rest, but clearly animals communicate with each other and with us.

Humans use tools.

No.  At the very least, chimps in the wild have been observed using sticks to collect ants–then scoot the ants up with their hands and gulp them down in one motion.  Yum!  I seem to recall primates, possibly even birds, using stones to crack nuts and mollusk shells.

Humans are the genetic descendents of the first Homo sapiens.

What?   You say you mean WHOLE organisms?  How whole?  Do amputees not count?  They do?  Then just HOW whole?  What if science were advanced enough to preserve the life of a person whose body had died, but whose brain lived on in a vat?  Would she still be a person?

But aren’t you being a little ethnocentric confining the human family to Homo sapiens?  How about those other branches on the human family tree closest to us, especially the Neanderthals?  I suspect most people would identify them as human, too.  Good thing, as many people believe many modern humans are partially descended from them, although this isn’t yet documented.

And when you start talking about genetics, you’re really opening a can of worms, of course.  We talk about THE human genome as if it were one thing, where there are countless known variations; let me discuss two of the better-known ones:

Down’s Syndrome is when a person has all or part of an extra copy of chromosome 21.  It usually causes mental retardation (although my Philosophy of Biology professor claimed that when she taught at Stanford she had a student with Down’s with an IQ of 140!) and a host of other mental and physical problems, but also a propensity towards less depression than typical.

XYY Syndrome is when a male has an extra Y chromosome.  According to Wikipedia, “most often, the extra Y chromosome causes no unusual physical features or medical problems.”

Since people with Down’s Syndrome or XYY Syndrome are genetically different from your typical person, are they really human?  I think most people would say yes.

And back to Dr. Who (and all the other fictional alien characters literature has given us, who hold a mirror up to our humanity, yet whose ancestors usually did not even spawn in our same oceans), who perhaps we will one day be privileged to meet in person.  Although genetically and internally he is certainly very different from us, yon Time Lord outwardly looks like us, reasons like us, has bad hair days like us, is subject to moral failings like us, uses tools far in advance of us, in short, seems to be meaningfully like us in every way that should count.

So, without a working definition, I want to say yes, I think if the Time Lord will accept us as company, we should accept him as human.

Green Morality

March 3, 2009

As we seek to do the good and avoid doing evil, rather than going over much of the same territory as as the Ethics 101 post, I’d like to start with what I think is the strongest definition historically of what evil is and see where that takes us. By all means–feel free to disagree with me and tell me why!!!

St. Augustine proposed that evil is the lack of good, much as cold is the lack of heat. By good, of course, he had in mind a theocentric concept, but what if we replaced it with a hedonistic concept? Specifically, let me define “good” as that which reduces pain and increases pleasure, for the individual and for the species. I’d also like to throw in the caveat that we should sometimes defer a lesser good for a greater good.  So, chocolate is good. No chocolate is bad. Enjoying a good book is good. Having a migraine is bad. So what if I take narcotics to relieve the migraine–that’s good right? The narcotics relieve the pain AND induce a certain euphoria of their own, a two-fer! So I should take them all the time right? Hold on, cowboy, that MIGHT long-term get me in trouble with Johhny Law, but it WILL cause brain damage resulting in a de facto chemical lobotomy, which is bad.

Likewise, speeding in my car will get me to my destination faster, which is good, but risks trouble with the police, bad, not to mention increased risk of an accident, additional wear and tear on the car, increased fuel consumption, and increased greenhouse gas emmissions, all bad.

Living intentionally as part of the human species, IMHO, is less about manners and more about reducing your carbon footprint, especially if you’re living in Western, industrialized democracy. Global warming is spiralling beyond worst-case scenarios and if humanity is to endure beyond the next couple of generations, it will be because of choices we make NOW.

So especially when we add the consideration of other people and living in a lawful society, so far our green morality doesn’t seem too far removed from any conventional morality. Maybe it would be easier if I found some counterexamples where my green morality might differ from what you might otherwise expect most people in most cultures to do nowadays.

*Get off your fat butt and exercise!  Once you get used to regular aerobic and strength training, it actually feels good, and you’ll feel better generally.  And while your friends are having their first heart attacks, your doctors will be looking at your lab reports and saying to you, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it!”  That also means walking instead of driving for short trips, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, etc.

*Reduce your carbon footprint. Seriously. For most of us the most practical way to do that is to reduce our meat consumption.  Electric cars, LED lights, and other technological marvels as they become available will be wonderful, too.

*Only have the number of children you can nurture well. For most of us, that means one, and never more than two.
*Technology is fun and useful and planety-friendly–use it. Going for a walk in the park is fun and good exercise and planet-friendly, too.

*Chicken is several times more energy-efficient than beef or pork, so those few times a week when you do serve meat, emphasize chicken.

*Be aware of “energy vampire” appliances that continue to suck current even when turned off, such that you have to unplug them when not in use.

*Spend some time with your family every day possible–if it’s not for them, what’s the point?

*Your spouse is your only love and your only sex partner; the infidelity rate is about 50% and the divorce rate is about 50%, too–see a connection?

*Never raise a hand to your child in anger–you’ll only teach brutality. Perhaps sometimes physical punishment is called for, but your child should be able to see that it pains you more than it does him or her.

*Don’t save fine china, fine crystal, fine wines, etc., for “some day” that never arrives. Enjoy them with friends and family at the next festive occasion.

*If you’re single (or it’s just the two of you and you’re not expecting or planning to have a baby soon) and you’re not responsible for anyone else and you’re not going to be driving and you’re willing to take the risk that comes with breaking the law and want to try some of the milder drugs out there froma trusted source, take precautions, but don’t be afraid to explore. You could open up whole new vistas in your life. Remember that all drugs have side effects and you should NOT take drugs if you have some major, unresolved issues or stresses in your life.

Whither Truth?

January 25, 2009

While the intuitive meaning of truth seems obvious, contemporary philosophers and other scholars have no broadly-accepted definition. The epistemological (epistemology: the nature of knowledge) stakes are high and have gone in many interesting directions. In illustrating some of the dilemmas, permit me self-consciously to mix categories to show a couple of more extreme options with fideism, a theory of truth, vs. postmodernism, a cross-disciplinary perspective. The careful observer will see both of these at work in contemporary Western societies.

Fideism (from Wikipedia):
Alvin Plantinga defines “fideism” as “the exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason and utilized especially in the pursuit of philosophical or religious truth.” The fideist therefore “urges reliance on faith rather than reason, in matters philosophical and religious,” and therefore may go on to disparage the claims of reason. The fideist seeks truth, above all: and affirms that reason cannot achieve certain kinds of truth, which must instead be accepted only by faith. Plantinga’s definition might be revised to say that what the fideist objects to is not so much “reason” per se — it seems excessive to call Blaise Pascal anti-rational — but evidentialism: the notion that no belief should be held unless it is supported by evidence.
The fideist would claim we ascend the mountain of human knowledge, but even having ascended to the top, there are ultimate truths and realities that are still unobtainable by rationality, so one must make the leap of faith into the arms of God. A current expression of this heard in church circles would be to “let go and let God.” There is no rational (or as per Plantiga above, evidential) reason to believe that there is a god to catch the aspirant, but because she believes, she moves into places beyond the pale of the merely rational.

Postmodernism (also Wikipedia):
Postmodern philosophy is skeptical or nihilistic toward many of the values and assumptions of philosophy that derive from modernity, such as humanity having an essence which distinguishes humans from animals, or the assumption that one form of government is demonstrably better than another…. Postmodern philosophy is often particularly skeptical about simple binary oppositions characteristic of structuralism, emphasizing the problem of the philosopher cleanly distinguishing knowledge from ignorance, social progress from reversion, dominance from submission, and presence from absence.
Most varieties of post-modernism despair that there may be no absolutes and everything is relative, or if there are absolutes, they are unknowable. Note that when pushed to the extreme, believing that that can be no absolutes, particularly absolute truth, this becomes a non-rational faith perspective that is self-contradictory: how can we know absolutely there is no absolute truth when there IS no absolute truth from which to learn such?

Is all of this just “the talk on a cereal box”? Interestingly, many postmodernists would agree, even as their hermeneutic (interpretive scheme) rests on a deep, philosophical foundation. And, too, the fideists would claim the only meaningful truths are revealed by God, so rational and evidential inquiry is ultimately fruitless. Even if some of the fideists were right, the truths they arrive at contradict the truths of other fideists coming out of different faith perspectives, unless one wants to claim that fideist knowledge is absolutely subjective, in which case it is not truth in a widely-accepted sense. Likewise, it seems to me that the radical postmodernist gives up without trying and ultimately lapses into nihilism and hedonism. I would argue aesthetically (so again, with a non-rational motivation) that the pursuit of truth is a beautiful, noble, and worthy thing; life is a journey and not a destination.

Ethics 101

January 7, 2009

Most of us are concerned to some degree with right behavior: ethics.  Whether at a conscious or unconscious level, we tend to stay close to certain families of ethical theory.  While there are hundreds of candidates, I want to briefly examine one religious ethic, Divine Command Theory, and two philosophical ethics, Utilitarianism and Kantianism.

(Gen 22 NIV) Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. {2} Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” {3} Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. {4} On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. {5} He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” {6} Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, {7} Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” {8} Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.{9} When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. {10} Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. {11} But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. {12} “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

To me, this is the most gruesome story in the Hebrew scriptures (known to Christians as the Old Testament).  Abraham was called by a supposedly good God to sacrifice not only his son, but the son through whom his descendents were to be promised the land.  Even though the deed was putatively morally repugnant, Abraham (the superhero of the faith) obeyed God and was prepared to murder his son.

This is an example of Divine Command Theory: whatever God commands is good, whatever God forbids is evil.  When asked to explain their opposition to gay marriage, for instance, most of my students cite biblical prohibitions on homosexuality, often using the biblical term “abomination.”

How, then, do we know what God commands and forbids?  If, for instance, I heard a voice booming out of the sky, “SAM, GO YE FORTH AND SLAY THE CHAIR OF YOUR DEPARTMENT, FOR I, THE LORD, COMMAND IT!” I would more likely check myself into a psychiatric facility than commit murder, since I would strongly suspect some part of my brain would be broken, not that God had spoken to me.

OK, so why not restrict ourselves to what is written in our religion’s canonical scriptures?  The problem then is that there are plenty of other things in the Hebrew scriptures called “abominations” that most people knowingly and repeatedly violate, such as eating shrimp and pork, and wearing blended fiber clothing.   We cannot consistently pick and choose which of God’s commandments to obey.

Divine Command Theory therefore is not a rational ethic.  That’s not necessarily to dismiss it, for perhaps (as some would claim) the desire for right behavior is fundamentally not rational.  But it does mean that our rational skills to evaluate, prioritize, dismiss, or contradict certain behaviors are limited or non-existent.

So how about a rational ethic?  One historic way to approach ethics rationally is on the basis of consequences: do consequences matter or not?  If you answer yes, you are some form of teleologist (telos is Greek for end or point).  If you answer no, you are some variety of deontologist (deon is Greek for duty or purpose).

The most famous teleological family of ethics is Utilitarianism (note there are several varieties of such).  At its base, Utilitarianism is concerned with maximizing the hedonistic good: pleasure is good, pain is bad.  We often summarize Utilitarianism as the greatest good for the greatest number.  It’s as if goodness could be quantified into units and you seek to maximize that number of units: perhaps a small good multiplied over many people, or a vast good for one person.  This offers many advantages, for instance that you can quantify the possible ramifications of a decision and draw a decision analysis tree, yielding the decision that will statistically most likely most benefit the greatest number of people (or what will most benefit you as an individual, too).  Much of our medical practice is based on such a cost-benefit analysis.  Yet this approach can yield some results that make our skin crawl, like harvesting all of the organs and tissues of a perfectly healthy person–killing her–in order to save the lives of fifty other persons who will die without the transplant.  More broadly, within Utilitarianism, the end justifies the means, which would seem to justify behaviors that most other ethical systems would condemn.

Again, this does not mean that we should necessarily throw out Utilitarianism.  Perhaps our exposure to other ethical systems has simply blinded us to what is genuinely right such that if we’d been raised purely Utilitarian, we would have no objections.  On the other hand, other people have tried to tweak Utilitarianism, for instance differentiating between acts and rules, to remove the worst of the objections.

The most often studied of the deontological systems is Kantianism, with his famous Categorical Imperative: that we must only do those behaviors that everyone else could also do, and that we must always treat people as valuable in and of themselves and never only as a means to an end.  For Kant, the only criterion for evaluating the morality of an action is intention: if you intend in good faith to help someone especially someone you would not ordinarily be inclined to help (since we reflexively tend to help our friends), then your act is good, even if it has terrible consequences.  Likewise if you have malevolent intentions towards someone, your act is evil, even if it accidentally has good consequences.  For instance, if you are driving your car, sober and paying attention and your car in good mechanical condition, and a stranger towards whom you have no malice, but only equanimity, happens to step in front of you and dies from the impact, Kant would say you have done nothing wrong, it was a simple accident.  If you were not paying attention, or not sober, or had let your car lapse into undependable mechanical condition, and these things contributed to or directly caused the accident, you bear some responsibility.  And, obviously, if you intended to hit the person, your act was unequivocally evil.  We see this reflected in our legal system, wherein you would respectively be held innocent, be liable for manslaughter, and be guilty of murder.  Kant did not go back to the Categorical Imperative to evaluate every moral act; rather he generated “maxims,” sayings or rules, to guide life, that were consistent with the Categorical Imperative, such as “Never tell a lie.”

The duties given to us by Kantian maxims are simple and straightforward, yet perhaps they are too inflexible for real life situations.  For instance, what are you to do when you have conflicting duties, such as to tell the truth or to save a life and you cannot do both?  Kant held you could only have one duty at a time, but did not leave us an unambiguous way to sort out our duties–and our great temptation would be to evaluate them based on consequences, which would strike at the core of deontology.

If you’re confused now, that’s possibly a good sign, that you understand the complexities of what’s at stake.