And maybe wrong
The hostage taker at the Discovery Channel headquarters posted a diatribe condemning modern civilization. The hostage taker saw humans as “filthy” and “parasitic” and considered the environment the only important value. In a warped re-reading of Daniel Quinn’s My Ishmael, his manifesto urges human civilization to dismantle itself before it takes the environment down with it.
Not long ago, there was another madman who embraced the collapse of civilization. He was a brilliant Harvard mathematician who convinced himself that, in order to truly be free, humans must satisfy a “power process” of challenge-and-reward cycles by eschewing industrial technology and struggling to survive. He also thought mailing bombs to people was a good idea.
Jared Diamond’s book Collapse provides a saner discussion of the demise of human civilization. Diamond argues that the depletion of resources has historically doomed isolated civilizations and may doom the entire human race in the near future. The solutions he suggests challenge things we take for granted, such as rising living standards and reproductive freedom.
Stem cell research and moral culpability.
A piece in The National Review commends a US district judge for halting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Before this ruling the Obama administration drew a distinction between the destruction of human embryos to create stem cell lines and the subsequent use of these stem cells in research. The destruction cannot be federally funded, but the research can. In light of the judge’s opinion that such a distinction was indefensible, the piece asks an interesting question.
On the one hand, it is true that all research on embryonic stem cells was preceded by and is made possible by the destruction of an embryo; the two acts are morally entangled. […] But on the other hand, imagine a young scientist just beginning his career, experimenting on stem cells derived from embryos destroyed years earlier, on the other side of the country, when he was still in junior high. Is he morally culpable for the act of embryo destruction?
Let us first assume that destroying and using human embryos is a morally impermissible act, even weighed against the possible good that stem cell research might produce. While this is an obviously controversial assumption on which philosophy has much to say, I will sidestep it for the sake of argument.
Does the causal link between destroying the embryos and using the stem cells in research produce the relevant “moral entanglement”? Read more
News from the psychology front: apparently, in laboratory tests people associate positive ideas (honesty, integrity, etc.) with their dominate hand and negative ideas with their non-dominant hand. A study of recent debates by presidential candidates has shown that these results hold in the real world as well. The piece itself is optimistic, promising that “watching politicians’ hands could help voters to know their minds.” I, however, always find studies that discover psychological links between ethical concepts and ethically irrelevant phenomena depressing. Ethics is hard enough without our brains trying to trick us all the time!
Photo by flickr user justthismoment used under a Creative Commons Attribution license
Here is an interesting piece on peer reviewed journals and science reporting. Apparently, science journalists are starting to look toward non-peer reviewed pre-print repositories like the arXiv to find papers to report on.
And there’s some pretty mind-blowing stuff lurking in the arXiv. Ars recently received a tip to check out a paper that suggests Bell’s Inequalities are simply a big misunderstanding, and we’ve spent decades chasing a phenomenon—quantum entanglement—that doesn’t actually exist. These sorts of fringe ideas sometimes do make it into the scientific literature, but they generally don’t, and rarely have much of an impact if they do. (In fact, if a paper lingers in the arXiv for years without ever finding a publisher, that’s probably saying something about its science.)
The conclusion is that using such sources is sensationalist and irresponsible. As interesting as this question is for science reporting, I wonder about similar issues in reporting political opinions. Is it responsible to report “fringe ideas” in the political realm? After all, something akin to peer review happens to political ideas as well, since different sources also have differing levels of respectability. It seems that many ideas are so unlikely to be correct that they are not worthy of the respect and time devoted to them when they are reported.
The relevant philosophical issues here are complex and often very technical (involving philosophy of science and meta-ethics), theorizing about the nature of knowledge and the relation between ethics and science. Still, this shows that even the most technical and abstract parts of philosophy are still applicable to the “real world.”
Photo by Flickr user Nic’s events used under Creative Commons Attribution license
The ethics of “sin taxes”
The other day Marc linked to a New York Times Room for Debate discussion on whether people should be paid to stay healthy. While that post focused on rewarding healthy behavior, much of the current debate and policy centers on restricting and discouraging unhealthy behavior. A common method for doing this is by imposing “sin taxes” on “certain objectionable products.” For instance, taxing cigarettes at a high rate in part to discourage people from purchasing them. These sorts of taxes are often popular with voters, but are they justifiable? Read more
The NYT discusses the debate over NASA scientists keeping their data to themselves.
Baseball and steroids
George Will is a conservative, political philosopher (by training), and noted baseball fan. How these three worlds come together – if at all – arose in a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal. Among several choice comments, this one in particular was interesting:
Since coming to grips with steroids, the sport has “had to make some interesting distinctions,” he says. “What’s the difference between steroids and Tiger Woods getting Lasik? What’s the difference between eating spinach and eating amphetamines? Well, one thing enhances the natural functioning of the body, the other makes the body behave unnaturally. I know there is artificial clarity to that distinction, but it’s useful.”
This kind of reasoning comes up fairly often in the context of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, and the problem is the obsession with the idea of “natural functioning.” I think it’s worth questioning whether what’s “natural” has any inherent value, or whether we can really determine what is “natural” at all. Read more
Well-known “new atheist” and neuroscientist Sam Harris took on this controversial question at this year’s TED conference.
Harris suggests that conventional wisdom tells us that science has nothing to say about questions of right and wrong. It cannot give us a foundation for values – it cannot give us goals, it can only help us get to our goals.
But, he says, all moral beliefs reduce to both facts about the brain (since beliefs, culture, experience all take place there) and factual claims about the mind, consciousness, and the world around us, etc. Since we can study these beliefs, claims, and their effects, science and reason can guide us to right and wrong answers about human well-being.
What does science tell us about the possibility of moral realism? Within the philosophical debate, science’s relevance is often neglected.
Stanley Fish (whose articles consistently elicit a response from me) has an interesting piece up on two troublesome distinctions in liberal thought: the distinction between religious and secular reasons and the distinction between public and private reasons. As is often the case, the article is really a supportive book review in disguise – this time of law professor Steven Smith’s “The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse.”
“Classical Liberals,” according to Fish, have long argued that when it comes to political debate, religious or value-laden arguments are inadmissible, since they operate on assumptions that are not universally shared or provable. Instead, they argue, we should rely squarely on “secular reason” to do the job of here-and-now policy-making.
But according to Smith / Fish, “secular reason” can’t actually solve ANY of our political problems. At least not without “smuggling in” some of that which it despises – metaphysical assumptions, values, and comprehensive doctrines. Science and reason can’t tell us what to do with data; we must choose how to use the tools of reason, what to aim them at, how to interpret information, and which facts really matter. Reason alone can’t do all of that picking, choosing, and ranking – we need some kind of substantive value system to do that.
How should universities teach religion, if at all? It’s a touchy subject – one that even the mighty Harvard has struggled to wrap its collective head around. That’s the subject of an interesting recent Newsweek piece by Lisa Miller.
Miller tells the story of a general curriculum conflict at Harvard between those who want to integrate faith and spirituality into course requirements (via a mandatory module called “Reason and Faith”) and those who would rather keep religion out of the classroom. The author sides with the former group, suggesting that “[t]o dismiss the importance of the study of faith—especially now—out of academic narrow-mindedness is less than unhelpful. It’s unreasonable.”
Steven Pinker, the well-known evolutionary psychologist, led the charge against the “Reason and Faith” module, arguing that the university’s mission is not to give a platform to all popular claims, but to pursue knowledge through rational inquiry. Teaching the importance of faith – at least as part of a mandatory curriculum requirement – would be anathema to that mission. Read more