About Francis Collins and the NIH

For quite a long time I have tended to avoid directly addressing current politics.  It is not that I’m uninterested in politics per se; it’s that I think think that so much of the debates that go on here in the U.S. about politics tend toward disagreements that amount to almost nothing.  I just do not see much difference between the two big parties, and when I watch or listen to the pundits the rhetoric is almost exclusively “X is evil because s/he belongs to party Y.”  I find that pretty dull and uninteresting.  However, it has been pointed out to me that much of my writing lately has gotten very close to being political.  I suppose that is true, though it has nothing to do with party lines or anything so lame.  I suppose I’m interested in “bigger” issues.  Those bigger issues are about what I was thinking when Liza first sent me the New York Times piece written by Sam Harris, “Science Is in the Details,” an article the deals with Francis Collins being nominated to head up the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In the past couple of days since I read it, several people have responded to this article or to the nomination of Collins in general, so it is unlikely that anything I’m saying here is novel, but I guess I feel compelled to chime in regardless.  For anyone who does not already know, Francis Collins is a top-notch geneticist who headed up the Human Genome Project.  As a scientist, much of his work deserves high praise.  Also, his leadership of the HGP showed his skill as leader of a large organization whose goals were important, whose work was difficult, and whose budget was immense.  Those qualifications would make him a natural choice for heading up the NIH.

Collins is also an evangelical Christian.  This position has led him to write a book entitled The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. It is Collins’ evangelical leanings that have many people uncomfortable with his heading up the NIH, and, looking at his exact position in detail, it is not difficult to see why.

(For anyone here thinking that Collins is a standard Creationist or even a proponent of Intelligent Design, I should point out that this is not the case.  He fervently asserts that we are evolved creatures, and that the standard positions in I.D. of irreducible complexity and specified complexity are false, though he does find the notion of a fine-tuned universe persuasive).

The fact that Collins is a Christian, even an evangelical Christian, is not a problem to me.  However, it is disconcerting to me that the director of the NIH would hold some of the explicit beliefs that Collins does.  In the linked article by Harris the content of five PowerPoint slides is presented (the entirety of the lecture in question can be seen here).  The third slide reads:  “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”  As a philosopher of mind and a proponent of science in general, I find such an assertion terribly troubling.  There is nothing in the dominant theories of mind that would support this, and there certainly is nothing in the sciences, especially neuroscience, that would support any such thing.  This seems to be a ridiculously twisted version of substance dualism, but not one with which I am readily familiar.  As such, I am baffled as to how anyone would justify such a position beyond mere blind faith.  And this is something the possible head of the NIH is espousing.  That should set off alarm bells for everyone.

So, what is really the problem here?  Well, besides the fact that it is a wildly unscientific proposal, something that should be troubling in itself coming from the possible director of one of country’s dominant scientific organizations, such a belief would seem to be in conflict with the genuine science that is going on in terms of the mind/brain.  How might the director of the National Institutes of Health decide to handle new research that deals with the actual work coming out of the neurosciences, especially in terms of mental illnesses, if that person believes that the mind is something other than the brain?  Surely it would be bizarre to suggest that altering brain chemistry would alter the soul, or that one’s knowledge of good and evil is somehow affected by brain structure, if those things are the result of some divine and non-physical “spark” placed there by God.  So, what would a person in such a position do with the research programs that explicitly state otherwise by attempting to treat such issues by dealing with the physical structures of the brain and the brain’s chemistry?

One possibility is that such a person might ignore their religious beliefs and proceed on the actual science and evidence pertaining to the issues in question.  But the problem is that there is no guarantee that this person would do any such thing.  In fact, if one takes these beliefs seriously, and Collins, as an avid apologist and Christian author, certainly seems to take this seriously, then such projects as those suggested would be a waste of time and money.  Further, there are possible avenues of benefit to those areas that would appear to be available to such a person, namely prayer and  meditation on God’s Word and Laws.  If it is true that, as Collins asserts, the human brain is merely a “house” for the mind and not the mind itself, then doing anything other than trusting in and praying to God would be foolish, or worse, a failure of faith in God.  This means that for those of us who take neuroscience and science-based psychology to be the best means available for dealing with issues of the mind the best we can hope is that Collins fails to live up to his duty to God and puts his faith aside.  This seems to be a dim hope.  Certainly, this might be what happens, in fact probably will be what happens, but it seems to be a strange thing indeed to hope that a person fails to do what he believes is right.  Rather, it seems as though it would be best to have someone in place would would be doing the right thing by using the best means available to deal with the problem.

Because of the above, I cannot help but be troubled by the potential appointment of Collins, or anyone like him, to the directorship of the NIH.  I find it strange that there are those out there who would ever want such a person in such a position at all.

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Health Care Rationing and Kidney Rationing

Even if you don’t find them convincing, it’s hard to avoid the arguments of Peter Singer.  This week, he published an essay in defense of health care rationing.  I am inclined to share Singer’s view that health care rationing is both a reasonable and justified (perhaps the only reasonable and justified) method of dividing up scarce health care resources, and so it was unsurprising to me that many of the things he said sounded quite sensible.   But, as I began to examine Singer’s thesis about value, it occurred to me that his argument justified much more than a modestly budgeted single-payer health care system.   If Utilitarians are right that political and economic policies are justified on the grounds that they maximize utility, a system of compulsory national organ donation is justified for exactly the same reason.   I don’t find this conclusion terribly problematic philosophically, but it makes it hard to sell the idea that Utilitarianism broadly encapsulates our moral intuitions.

In my last post, I argued that Utilitarians have a difficult time defending moral rights as they are normally understood because, for the Utilitarian, the moral act is always that which maximizes utility (happiness, pleasure, etc.) across the board.  Utilitarian justifications for breaking conventional moral rules are commonplace and often quite intuitive.  If you have ever told a white lie to spare someone’s feelings, shrugged off a mistake with the qualification that "nobody got hurt," or argued that military action that kills a few to save a million is justified, you have used a Utilitarian justification.   Most people agree that it is justifiable to sacrifice one, nameless, person who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time if such a sacrifice is necessary to save the lives of a million people.  (Imagine one ignorant carrier of a highly contagious virus who is about to enter a crowded thoroughfare and begin a catastrophic epidemic.) As the number of lives saved goes down, or as the identity of the sacrificed person becomes less hypothetical, however, our intuitions about the morality of Utilitarian calculation become less clear.

The standard example used to demonstrate the counter-intuitive implications of Utilitarian ethics is the case of a doctor faced with the opportunity to save five innocent people by killing a sixth innocent person and harvesting his organs.  Most people do not think it is morally justifiable to kill a healthy  human being even if, in death, his organs could be used to save the lives of many other people who will die without a transplant.  Utilitarians have tried to defend* their view from this objectionable implication by arguing that laws that would allow a doctor to divvy up one healthy patient would not maximize happiness because they would keep people from going to the doctor. Unfortunately, these strategies, though politically appealing, do little to alter the moral directives of the theory.  While a law that prevents patient sacrifice may promote more utility than a law which allows the practice, a Utilitarian doctor would reason correctly that the loss of utility from legalizing the practice of patient sacrifice comes as a consequence of public opinion, not at the sacrifice of the patient.  The Utilitarian can make no argument that it is morally obligatory to break the law in such circumstances when utility is maximized by doing so, and so the doctor is left to the conclusion that the morally obligatory choice is to divvy up the patient and then cover up the sacrifice, leading to the maximally optimum outcome of more patients being saved and the public being happily comfortable in their ignorance.

In this week’s New York Times Magazine, Peter Singer makes the reasonable assertion that health care, as a costly and limited resource, is always rationed.  He then makes the case that rationing on the basis of cost-versus-out-come, with the end goal of providing life-saving, and life-improving medical care for the greatest number of people, is a more ethical approach than our current system which doles out the best health care to to those who can pay for hefty private insurance premiums.  According to Singer, a single-payer system of public health care is justified because it is likely to improve overall happiness as measured in QALY’s or quality-adjusted-life-years.

More people will live better lives for longer if we adopt a single-payer health-care system.  But if the only reason to adopt this system is that it maximizes this outcome (utility as measured in QALY’s), then we should also adopt a system of compulsory live-organ donation.  In the United States today, approximately 80,000 people are waiting for a kidney donation, surviving with a very low quality of life on dialysis machines and waiting for the possibility of a live donor match.  Virtually no person donates a kidney altruistically, meaning that almost everyone who will receive a live donation will do so because a loved one has agreed to donate a kidney on their behalf.  This reality is made all the more tragic because live kidney donation is a relatively low-risk procedure.  Because the kidneys function as a single unit, they usually function or fail together meaning that, for almost everyone, one kidney will do the job about as well as two.  An organ donor who lives with one kidney faces very little additional risk once he recovers from surgery because his remaining kidney will expand to do the work of the pair.

In Utilitarian terms, it is not only reasonable but morally obligatory to ration out healthy kidneys to those who need them, perhaps by a compulsory national lottery (like a military draft).  Kidneys, like health care, are a scarce resource which, if better distributed, would maximize utility as measured in QALY’s.  The distribution of functioning or failing kidneys among separate individuals is at least as morally arbitrary as the distribution of quality health care among people of varying incomes.

So, why don’t just governments require all citizens to enter a national kidney registry?  If you believe that they should, and that it is not only morally defensible but morally obligatory to redistribute a scarce resource in a manner that will save lives and cause little overall harm, then, congratulations, you are a consistent Utilitarian.  If, however, it seems wrong to compel others to have an invasive surgery and give up a bodily organ, you need to rethink Utilitarian justifications.  There are other ways to justify single-payer health-care systems, and not all of them require the proverbial pound of flesh.

*There  is some debate in contemporary ethics about modified versions of Utilitarianism can overcome these objections.  The most popular of these modified versions of Utilitarianism is "Rule Utilitarianism."

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Bird Poop Virgin Mary vs. Atheist Watermelon




Recently, a man in Texas woke up on a Sunday morning and decided to wash the family truck.  He had been in an accident a few months earlier, and this was the first time he had looked at the truck since then.  Once outside he noticed some bird excrement on the truck that he found interesting.  He called his family over to look at it.  "I told my brothers come over here and see what this is, and they say this is the Virgin," said Salvador Pachuca.  Yes, you read that right, the man thought the bird crap looked like the Virgin Mary.  Since then people have been coming to look at the bird crap and even pray to it.  Again, you read that right.  They are praying to the bird crap.  You can check out a video about this on ABC news here and a text story on it here (though a search for “virgin mary bird poop” will give you plenty of sources reporting on the same thing).

There are couple of things I want to point out about this.  The first has to do with the assertion that this looks like the Virgin Mary.  I suppose I could be more specific in pointing out that people think that it looks like the Our Lady of Guadalupe.  However, the point I want to make will not be dampened by this.  The bird poop does not in any way look like a person, much less the Virgin Mary, whatever she might have looked like (putting aside the historical question of whether or not such a person actually ever existed).  Do you follow me here?  The bird poop in no way resembles a person.  When you look at it you do not see the outline of a body, a face, hands, or anything else that might suggest a person.  The only thing you might get out of it is an oval shape with blue and gold in it.  That is supposed to be what resembles the Virgin.  Just a couple of colors in a vague shape.  So we go from some bird excrement that dried in a somewhat oval shape to a painting done in the 16th century that is supposed to be what appeared on the inside of a peasant’s cloak as proof of personage by an apparition of the Mother of God to the Virgin Mary.

I must confess to some level of head-shaking over this.

Funny enough, a comic video was made just a few days before this news story came out that has an atheist finding the message “THERE IS NO GOD” inside a watermelon.  You can see the video here.  The joke, of course, is that no atheist would actually think such an arrangement was evidence of there, in fact, being no god.  Nature, the Universe, the World, or whatever does not communicate these kinds of things.  Further, the atheist’s position is not one of faith, so there is nothing to affirm by mysterious messages in fruit (or bird poop).

The other issue I want to address is tied to this idea of faith.  Upon hearing of finding a distorted representation of a painting of the Virgin Mary in dried bird excrement, a representation of Jesus’ head on a piece of toast, or words written in fruit, one is inclined to wonder what the purpose of such a representation might be.  Believers believe by faith, so the most obvious answer is that this sort of “miracle” is a way for God (or the Mother of God, as the case may be) to demonstrate His power and existence to us.  This is certainly the kind of answer I’ve received when I’ve asked those around me what the significance of such imagery is.  But does this make any kind of sense?  Does the picture of dried bird crap above fulfill such a goal?  I don’t see how it does.  That is because one has to have faith that the crap is actually a representation of a magic painting of the Virgin.  It certainly is not a clear representation of such.  In order to buy that this crap is representative of something holy and mystic one must already have faith that such a thing exists, that such a thing wants to show its existence, and that such a thing would use crap to accomplish that goal.  But if you already have enough faith that dried crap would suffice as evidence of all the above, then you likely do not need such evidence in the first place.  The only reason anyone would think that the above picture of crap in any way signifies the Virgin Mary is if they already believe that the Virgin Mary is hanging around doing things like appearing in bird crap. 

The point here is that as a demonstration of power, existence, or anything, the crap above fails completely.  It requires that one already have sufficient faith in the thing represented such that there is no need for the demonstration.  As for the rest of us who lack such faith, well, the crap is just that:  crap.

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More on Singer, Utilitarianism, and Animal Rights

Jim has made the case that sentience is problematic as a ground for membership within the moral community, but Peter Singer-style Utilitarian arguments for animal rights are problematic for other reasons as well.  In this post I would like to address two other problems with Utilitarianism, one a general problem, and one a problem as it pertains to animal rights.

I don’t think it is going out on a limb to say that many people who study the empirical sciences and mathematics are attracted to Utilitarianism because, on the surface, it seems more rational than other ethical theories.  If I am a biology major and my only exposure to ethics is a two-week summary of Mill and Kant taught in an introductory philosophy course, it is unsurprising that that I might come to the conclusion that Utilitarianism is and should be the dominant paradigm for ethical reasoning.  After all, it has a great deal of intuitive appeal (don’t we all agree that it’s wrong to hurt people?), and it’s a lot simpler to understand than the Categorical Imperative.   More importantly, it seems objective.  Utilitarians talk of doing a “utility calculus” in order to determine whether a particular action is morally laudable.  It seems scientific because it is contingent upon as-yet-unknown information, and it seems fair because every person’s pleasure (or, for Singer, every being’s sentience) is given equal weight.

All of these virtues aside, however, Utilitarianism faces serious objections on a meta-ethical level.  This is because the foundation for Utilitarianism is an assertion about objective value that almost all non-Utilitarians reject and which Utilitarians have a great deal of trouble defending.  This is the argument:

Every person values his or her own happiness (pleasure and absence of pain).

Therefore, happiness is objectively valuable.

If something is objectively valuable, each person has a moral obligation to promote it.

Therefore, each of us has a moral obligation to promote happiness, whether it is our own or someone else’s.

The move from the uncontroversial descriptive observation that each of us values our own happiness to the moral proclamation that we ought to promote the happiness of others is an attempt to bridge the is/ought gap.   This is an inevitable part of every ethical theory, but I think the Utilitarians do an especially bad job with it.  The problem is the move from one individual valuing his own happiness to the objective value of happiness as such.  It is just not true that my happiness is valuable to people who don’t know me.  The fact that others value their own happiness gives them reason to promote their own own happiness, but it does not give them any reason to promote mine because, as a matter of fact, they do not value it.  So, when Utilitarians say that we have a moral obligation to promote universal happiness they are really making a prescriptive assertion (“Happiness is intrinsically valuable”) that is no more empirical and no less dogmatic than the commandments of Biblical Scripture.  The Millian Greatest Happiness Principle may be more appealing to modern university students than the orders of a dubiously existent creator, but it is no more true.

Having made note of the general problems of Utilitarianism, I now want to move on to Singer’s argument for animal rights.  As Jim has pointed out, the idea of animals being member of a moral community which gives them rights without correlative obligations is highly problematic.   I think some of this confusion is due to the fact that Utilitarians like Singer really can’t give an account of rights that is anywhere close to the commonplace use of the word.  In political terms, rights are generally seen as a sort of trump card.  If I have a right to something, that means others have a certain type of obligation to me- either to provide me with it (this is the case when we speak of a so called “positive” right such as health care or education) or, more narrowly, to refrain from interfering with my having it (this is the case when we speak of a so-called “negative” right such as a right to life or a right to bodily sovereignty).

Utilitarians believe that we all have a moral obligation to promote the greatest overall happiness, which means that they can make sense of all sorts of prima facie rules for moral action.  For example, the Utilitarian would say that we usually have a moral obligation to refrain from killing innocent people because this is likely to cause a great deal of suffering and not promote much happiness.  However, in those situations in which it would promote the greatest happiness (or prevent the most suffering) by killing an innocent person (imagine a bomb strapped to a baby crawling toward a crowded shopping plaza), it is not only morally permissible to kill an innocent, it is morally obligatory to do so.  This makes it hard to make sense of a moral “right” to life in way that we normally understand the term.  In Utilitarian terms, an innocent person’s “right” to life is entirely contingent upon whether killing him is likely to destroy more happiness than it creates.  The “right” is not a trump card.  It can’t even be used for the sake of an appeal because, if the Utilitarian is doing his calculus correctly, the innocent person’s happiness has already been counted as a factor and outweighed by the benefits of killing him.

The issue of animal rights is an obvious area of disagreement between Singer-style Utilitarians and most other philosophers, but, in my view, it derives from the fact that Singer-style Utilitarians can’t give a good account of rights in general.  Rights, as we generally understand them, track with a system of obligations within a society of persons.   Singer raises legitimate challenges to our notion of moral personhood by arguing that many within our society (infants, brain-dead humans, etc.) don’t seem to be capable of fulfilling obligations to others within the moral community and yet are protected legally (and most would say morally) as persons with rights.  It is difficult to pinpoint a reason for protecting these humans that is not based upon the arbitrary fact of their biology, but Singer’s conclusion that these beings are morally equivalent to other animals is just as arbitrary.  For Singer, all it means to have a right is to be worthy of consideration within the utility calculus, but that consideration is itself based upon the arbitrary assertion that happiness is objectively valuable.  Even if we could establish that animal pleasure and pain is relevantly identical to human pleasure and pain, I would have no more reason to value an animal’s happiness than to value the happiness of a complete stranger.  To my way of thinking, that’s not much of a reason at all.

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Evolution Does Not Morally Obligate Us to Be Vegetarians

I don’t have a lot of time to listen to all the podcasts to which I’m subscribed, so I often get behind. The result is that I only recently listened to an episode of Reasonable Doubts from a few weeks ago entitled "Stewards of this Earth". In that episode one of the things the crew of “doubtcasters” addressed is whether or not one is obligated to become a vegetarian if you accept evolutionary theory in biology. They all came to the consensus that one is, and, as they all accept evolutionary theory, they are all vegetarians (though there is some discussion as to the success they have had maintaining this status in practice). But is this right? Are you actually morally obligated to be a vegetarian if you also accept the biological theory of evolution?

The basic argument they offer up is one modeled after Peter Singer’s arguments about animal rights.  They suggest that evolutionary theory informs us that there is no qualitative distinction between our species and others.  If we are not different in kind, then we need to have some good reason to grant rights to humans and not to other animals.  They point out that intelligence is not a good cut-off point as many humans suffer from any number of issues that result in their having lower intelligence, yet we do not eat them.  Hence, we cannot say that it is proper to grant rights (such as not being eaten) to humans and not to animals on that ground.  Following Singer, they decide that what makes an organism the kind of thing that has rights is whether or not it is sentient (though they spend almost no time explaining exactly what that means, and I would suggest that it is far from obvious).  They quote Singer who said, “In suffering, at least, animals are equal.”  So, as soon as an organism can suffer, it has rights, and one is then obligated to consider those rights when weighing out one’s moral obligations to that organism.  Thus, the argument can be broken down like this:

1) If you suffer, you have rights.
2) Animals (that we eat) suffer.
Hence, animals (that we eat) have rights.

Taking the conclusion from above we get this:

1) Animals (that we eat) have rights.
2) The rights in question include not being eaten.
3) Animals (that we eat) have the right to not be eaten.

And we can move to the big conclusion like this:

1) We are morally obligated to not infringe upon others’ rights.
2) Eating animals that have the right not to be eaten infringes upon their rights.
3) We are morally obligated to not eat these animals.

For anyone versed in philosophy of mind to any degree the question of whether or not it is appropriate to suggest that other species “suffer” should jump out at you.  Do other animals suffer?  We just don’t know.  Even worse, we do not even know what the criteria are for knowing this.  Indeed, it’s not entirely clear just in what suffering, nor many of the qualitative experiences we have, consists.  “Suffering” could be prove to be especially tendentious, so, to illustrate the point, we can look at something that seems fairly easy to identify and understand, namely pain. 

I imagine that most everyone reading this would agree that one of the necessary characteristics of pain is that it is undesirable.  That is, if someone were to begin talking about how much pain they were having and how it was not at all bothersome, we likely would suspect that they either did not know what pain was, or they were lying.  However, any number of studies have demonstrated that everyday people can feel pain and not find it undesirable at all.  It is very common for patients on methadone to report that they are experiencing pain, sometimes very strong pain, and yet it is not undesirable in the least.  That’s just one of the effects of methadone.  It doesn’t get rid of pain, it just makes you not care that you have it.  So, what are we to think in that case?  Are the individuals in question feeling pain or not?  If they are, then it is not true that one of the necessary characteristics of pain is that it is undesirable.  If they are not feeling pain, then we need some explanation as to why so many people who are completely familiar with the concept of pain, have experienced it before, can detect when others are in pain, and can predict when pain will occur are getting something so simple so wrong.  The point here is that when dealing with questions of the mind even things that seem simple and straightforward can get messy and complicated when we look closely.  If we are not sure what pain is, then we certainly are not sure what suffering is.  And if we are not even certain what suffering is, then it is clearly difficult to say what kinds of things suffer.

There is little room here to get into all the details of the various ontological positions concerning the mind, but possibly the largest failure of the most common of these is philosophical behaviorism (not to be confused with methodological behaviorism).  Simply put, behaviorism says that mental states, such as suffering, just are the behaviors that entities exhibit when “suffering.”  That is, the mental state just is the set of behaviors (along with the predisposition to those behaviors).  This view would allow us to say for certain that any entity that displayed the behaviors that we would normally take to be indicative of suffering would be suffering as the behaviors would themselves be the state rather than pointing at something beyond themselves.  The failure of behaviorism is largely due to the recognition that behaviors do, in fact, point to something beyond themselves, and it is that something else that is the mental state.  However, that means that we can go wrong by looking at behaviors in attempting to identify mental states, and this is a common experience.  Pain is not equal to jumping up and down, swearing, massaging the area in “pain,” nor any of the other behaviors one might exhibit while experiencing that mental state.  Pain is something beyond those behaviors, and it is an open question as to whether or not those behaviors even point to the state.  It is at least possible that one could feel pain and exhibit none of the behaviors generally associated with pain at all.  The take-home here is that behavior alone just is not a good indicator of mental states.

What ontology is best for describing mental states is an enormous question, but, if it is not behavior, then we are in a rough spot suggesting that other animals are feeling what we are feeling when we suffer.  Again, I think it would be difficult to come to generally agreed upon set of criteria for suffering in humans.  To attempt to discover whether or not such things are experienced by other animals without the ability to communicate with them in any meaningful way is next to hopeless.  We just have no idea whether or not other animals suffer at all, even if they exhibit behavior that we imagine would be the kind of thing we would exhibit if we were them.  We are not them, and that is the point.

Some might still want to argue that even with all the problems of behaviorism (and I did not even scratch the surface here), that when other organisms go out of their way to avoid certain circumstances, then some (I would suggest highly debatable) notion of suffering has been achieved.  And this is where the problem of identifying mental states by way of behaviors becomes so clear.  There are any number of organisms that we just cannot think of as suffering.  There are single-celled organisms that lack any sort of central nervous system along with any sort of brain.  That means they lack both the apparatus to transmit the information that would detect suffering along with the ability to process such information.  Yet, they are able to “avoid” circumstances that would be deadly for them; they “seek” out food; they “find” other individuals of their species.  I use the scare quotes in each of those cases because of the baggage that goes along with the concepts.  Each of them has built into it some sense of wanting, desiring, fearing, etc.  In short, it has built into it some sense of mentality, and yet these are things which the organisms in question completely obviously lack.  They exhibit the behavior we associate with such states, yet it is plainly impossible for them to have such.  And that is one of the big reasons why attempts to identity mental states by way of those behaviors so completely fails.

The message in all this talk about behavior is that we cannot rely on other animals’ behaviors as a way of discovering whether or not they are actually suffering.  It is entirely possible that there is just nothing like what we would think of as suffering going on with those organisms.  As that is the case, the argument spelled out earlier is cut off at the knees as we have no way to get to a place where we can say that these animals are suffering, so we can’t say they have rights.  As such, the argument fails.

There is a further problem where the doubtcasters commit the naturalistic fallacy.  What they do is try to move from an “is” to an “ought” by saying that because we are not different in kind from other animals we should not treat them differently.  They want to say that the fact of the matter is what determines what we should do, and this is exactly what the naturalistic fallacy is.  What’s funny about that is that they are explicitly aware of the naturalistic fallacy.  They address it as a possible response to their position.  They suggest that someone might say that features of our physiology, such as our teeth, are suited for eating meat and clearly evolved under pressures of eating meat, so we should eat meat.  Moving from that is to ought is, of course, illegitimate.  But so is their assertion that the mere fact that we are related to other animals in that we have a common ancestor somehow commits us to treating other animals in any way whatsoever.  That is just as bad a mistake as the one they criticize.  It just is not the case that our natural relationship to other species in and of itself in any way morally commits us to treating them any particular way whatsoever.

This point cannot be stressed enough.  Any attempt to read a moral prescription off a naturalistic description is fallacious.  There is no time where this is not the case. (Funny enough, this was the subject for my Bachelor’s thesis.)  You cannot under any circumstances use the facts of biology to determine moral imperatives.  The best for which one could hope are prudential imperatives, and even this requires all sorts of values that are not themselves justified by a naturalistic description of the facts of the matter.  This completely undermines the heart of their position.

Funny enough, these are not the least of the problems.  Perhaps the biggest issue facing the guys of Reasonable Doubts is the simple and straightforward mistake of including in the moral community those individuals whom they, at the same time, do not include in the moral community.  This is really where I am just left scratching my head with anyone who attempts to make similar arguments.  They point out that there is a problem of holding other animals to our moral standards.  They ask exactly the right question, but then they move on without addressing the issue.  They say, "Why don’t we judge animals that eat other animals as being morally wrong?”  But there is no response to this question in the podcast.  They just move on and leave this question hanging in the ether.  And, of course, that question brings up the most important issue.  We don’t judge lions eating gazelles as committing murder simply because we do not hold them to our moral standards.  We do not include them, or gazelles, within our moral community.  They are not subject to praise and blame in the way that other humans are.  And this is the whole point!  If other animals are not in any way members of the moral community, then they are not in any way members of the moral community, and that means they are not privy to the moral rights that actual members of the community have.  As such, they do not have the right to not be eaten, and this is true even if they have the ability to suffer and the fallacious reasoning noted above is ignored.  We only grant such rights to those individuals we hold morally accountable for their actions, and this is clearly not the case for the animals we eat.  If we start charging cows with murder and chickens with destruction of property, then things might change.  But even then it wouldn’t be our genetic relationship with these animals that would change our moral obligations to them.  It would be the inclusion in the larger moral community that would make the difference, and this has nothing at all to do with evolution.

This last point is likely to be much more controversial than the other points, but it needs to be made.  It strikes at the core of any Singer-esque account of animal rights.  All this “moral community” talk requires a lot of explication, and, of course, I am hitting only the broadest strokes.  Liza plans on addressing this in more detail in her critique of this same podcast, so if you’re foaming at the mouth over this, or even if you’re just mildly skeptical of the argument I’ve laid out, there is some chance that your criticisms will be addressed in her post.

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Reason to Fear the Elect

To the left is a video in which Arizona State Senator Sylvia Allen claims that the Earth is 6000 years old.  That such a claim is made by a U.S. state senator shocking enough.  Certainly, one would think that to hold such a position a person must have enough general knowledge to understand the basics of issues up for debate such that, when discussing radioactive materials as it relates to the states interests (here, uranium), one has some understanding of the general importance of the material being discussed.  As Keith Olbermann* points out at the end of the video, it is the decay rate of uranium by way of uranium-lead dating that provides some of the best evidence we have for the age of the Earth, about 4.6 billion years old.  By suggesting that the age of the Earth is off by a factor of 1,000,000, Ms. Allen here demonstrates that she has no such understanding, and, as such, her opinion on the subject cannot be trusted.

Were that the worst of the problems, that would be bad enough.  But it isn’t.  The worst problem is the reason she brings up the supposed age of the Earth.  She does so as a way of justifying her disregarding any concerns held over the possible environmental issues that might arise from having a uranium mine.  Whether or not such concerns are legitimate or appropriate is not the issue.  Educated people can have differing opinions.  Allen’s position is clearly that she is unwilling to even consider the issues that might be of concern because, “This Earth’s been here 6000 years…long before anybody had environmental laws, and somehow it hasn’t be done away with…”  Clearly, then, the reason the age of the Earth is of any importance has to do with Allen’s belief that environmental regulations are unnecessary.  One can only surmise that Allen believes that because the Earth has somehow managed to survive 6000 years without being destroyed by our activities, there is no reason to be concerned that it will ever be destroyed by our activities.**

Such a view is laughably absurd.  Whatever the possible affects we may or may not be having on the environment of the planet on which we live, it is ridiculous to suggest that merely because something has not happened before, when the causal force was not in place, it will not happen in the future.  As causal forces change, effects change.  That much is obvious.  As such, one is forced to ponder the true source of Allen’s view that considering the effect we will have on the environment is misguided.

At this point I am forced to make some assumptions, but I do not think they are without any foundation at all.  Allen obviously takes the Bible as literal.  By taking the Bible literally Allen need not have any concern that we are going to damage the environment to such a degree that we will no longer be able to survive.  The Bible is quite clear that it will not be environmental catastrophe that is our undoing.  The Antichrist will be the thing that “destroys the world.”  By taking that to be the Truth, Allen and those like her need not have any concerns about the outcome of the Earth.  After all, they know how the story ends:  they have read the Book.  And that kind of certainty about knowing how things will end is what allows people like Allen to have such a cavalier disregard for those things that might affect the habitability of the planet.  And that is why the rest of us should fear them and deal with them cautiously.

People like Allen are terrifying.  If you are somehow under the impression that this stuff does not matter, you are mistaken.  You should be concerned.  We all should be very concerned.



*I am quite aware of the mistake that Olbermann makes in conflating uranium-lead dating and radiocarbon dating.  I am willing to let this slide as I think it is plausible that he was attempting to group all radiometric dating techniques together, though I will admit that it is more likely that he is actually showing his own ignorance about the issue while attacking Allen for the same thing.  Regardless, he is not guilty of what I consider to be the greater issue, and, more importantly, he is not a legislator using his willful ignorance to push forward an agenda that affects millions of people.

**It might be worth pointing out that it is highly unlikely that anyone believes that our activities are like to actually bring about the destruction of the planet itself.  Rather, it is that people are concerned that we will alter the climate to such a degree as to make it uninhabitable for us.

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When Is a Museum Not a Museum

This is not a fake!  This is actually in the museum!

Dr. Sato likened the museum to an amusement park. “I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed Disneyland,” she said.  Did she enjoy Disneyland?  “Not very much,” she said.

Recently, several paleontologists (about 70 of them) attended the Creation Museum in Kentucky, as detailed by a  New York Times story which can be seen here.   They were at the University of Cincinnati for the American Paleontological Convention and were curious about a museum that explicitly opposed almost the entirety of their field’s work, so they all hopped on a bus and rode over to check out how Ken Ham and the Answers in Genesis crew saw the early Earth.  The paleontologists were from all over the world, so it is hardly shocking that some of them were surprised to discover that such a place even exists.  Some of them were quite harsh in expressing their opinions on the establishment.  Lisa E. Parks of the University of Akron suggested, “they should rename the museum — not the Creation Museum, but the Confusion Museum,” and Jason D. Rosenhouse, a mathematician at James Madison University in Virginia, went even further:  “I hate that it exists,” he said.   As you might have guessed, none were convinced by the not-so-fancy animatronics and scenes of dinosaurs aboard the Ark, nor were they persuaded by the amazing ability to have their pictures taken riding what appears to be a small triceratops (see the pic on the left).

These paleontologists are not the only ones to recently pay the Creation Museum a visit.  Michael Ruse and some of his graduate students also made the rounds of this museum last month, but his reaction seems to be different from that of the paleontologists.  Unlike the scientists, Ruse said, “Just for one moment about half way through the exhibit …I got that Kuhnian flash that it could all be true – it was only a flash (rather like thinking that Freudianism is true or that the Republicans are right on anything whatsoever) but it was interesting nevertheless to get a sense of how much sense this whole display and paradigm can make to people.”  Yes, you read that right.  Ruse said that there was an instant where he felt that the creationist paradigm might actually be right.

This is where the issue becomes puzzling for me.  I don’t want to hammer Ruse too hard as he seems like a decent enough guy and an okay philosopher.  I actually had the opportunity to meet Ruse a few years ago when he came to the University of New Orleans to speak for Darwin Day.  I will say that I had to correct him on a few criticisms he had of Dan Dennett (and he seemed much more amused than I was about the fact that he found such a breadth of insight from a person with such “shocking hair”),  but I’ve been happy to see him going on his rounds defending the teaching of evolutionary biology in the science class when school boards have attempted to push through some ruling that would either remove evolution from the curriculum or require the teaching of some version of creationism alongside genuine science.  It is for this reason that I find myself disappointed and at a loss for how Ruse could experience such a “Kuhnian flash,” even if it was momentary.

The problem with the suggestion of such an “insight” is that to have it would require one to disregard an enormous amount of data that has been collected along with the most successful theories ever developed.  In fact, we are in the midst of the most significant synthesis of scientific theories in history, with theories in biology, chemistry, physics, etc. all supporting and buttressing one another to an amazing degree.  It is all this that would have to be set aside in order to have the creationist perspective make sense to anyone.  And this is likely exactly the reason that the scientists I mentioned in the first paragraph did not also experience such flashes of insight.  They are simply too deeply entrenched in the real world for such an insight to ever take place.  In that case, it is curious that Ruse had anything like that himself.  Certainly, as a philosopher of science who has intensely studied and written about evolutionary biology he is as aware of the facts as are the scientists from the paleontological convention.  As such, it would seem unlikely that Ruse would be susceptible to the reality distortion field that pervades the Creation Museum.  And yet….

Regardless of what Ruse experienced, it seems absurd to suggest that the people running the Creation Museum are doing anything other than spreading lies and attempting to mislead people, primarily children, about the truth of the early earth and the origin of species.  Contrary to what Ruse believes, that “we on the other side need to get a feeling not just for the ideas but for the psychology too,” no one is under any obligation to do anything other than ridicule those who would teach our youth that Jesus rode around on dinosaurs.  Coddling such purveyors of ignorance, whether such is intentional or not, does nothing but encourage them and legitimize their position, and their position has no legitimacy at all.  We should not treat them otherwise.

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