Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Ethics of Genetic Extermination

Ochlerotatus notoscriptus, Tasmania, Australia

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While we consider ourselves to be the dominant species on the planet, we do face dangers from other species. While some of these species are large animals such as lions, tigers and bears our greatest foes tend to be tiny. These include insects, bacteria and viruses.

While we have struggled, with some success, to eliminate various tiny threats advances in technology and science have given us some new options. One of these is genetically modifying species so they cannot reproduce, thus resulting in their extermination. As might be suspected, insects such as disease carrying mosquitoes are a prime target. One approach to wiping out mosquitoes is to genetically modify mosquito eggs so that the adults carry “extermination” genes. The adult males are released into the wild and reproduce with native females in the target area. The offspring then bear the modified gene which causes the female mosquitos to be unable to fly (they lack flight muscles). The males can operate normally and they continue to “infect” the local population until (in theory) it is exterminated. As might be imagined, this approach raises various ethical concerns.

One obvious point of concern is the matter of intentionally exterminating a species. On the face of it, such an action seems to be morally dubious. However, it does seem easy enough to counter this on utilitarian grounds. After all, if an organism (such as a mosquito) is harmful to humans and does not have an important role to play in the ecosystem, then its extermination would seem to be morally justified on the grounds that doing so would create more good than harm. Naturally, if a harmful species were also beneficial in other ways, then the matter would be rather more complicated and such extermination could be wrong on the grounds that it would do more harm than good.

The utilitarian approach can be countered by appealing to an alternative approach to ethics. For example, it could be argued that such extermination is simply wrong regardless of the beneficial consequences to humans. It can, however, be pointed out that species go extinct naturally and, as such, perhaps a case could be made that such exterminations are not inherently wrong. The obvious counter would be to point out that there is a significant moral difference between a species dying of natural causes and being destroyed. The distinction between killing and letting die comes to mind here.

I am inclined to accept that the extermination of a harmful species can be acceptable, provided that the benefits do, in fact, outweigh the damage done by exterminating the species. Getting rid of, for example, the HIV virus would seem to be morally acceptable. In the case of mosquitoes, the main concern would be the role of the mosquito in the ecosystem and the impact that its extermination would have. If, for example, the disease carrying mosquito was an invasive species and its elimination would not impact the ecosystem in a negative way, then it would seem to be acceptable to exterminate it. Naturally, if the extermination is local and the species remains elsewhere, then the ethics of the situation become far less problematic. After all, I have no moral objection to the extermination of the roaches, termites, fleas and other bugs that attempt to reside in my house—there are plenty that remain in the wild and they would pose a threat to the well-being of myself and my husky. Naturally, I would only accept the extermination of a species on very serious grounds, such as a clear danger presented to my species. Even then, it would be preferable to see if the extermination could be avoided.

A second point of concern involves the methodology. While humans have attempted to wipe out species by killing them the old fashioned ways (like poisons), the use of genetic modification could be morally significant.

There is, of course, the usual concern with “playing God” or tampering with nature. However, as is always pointed out, we routinely accept such tampering as morally acceptable in other areas. For example, by using artificial light, vaccines, surgery and such we are “playing God” and tampering with nature. As such, the idea that “playing God” is inherently wrong seems rather dubious. Rather, what is needed is to show that specific acts of “playing God” or tampering are wrong.

There is also the reasonable concern about unintended consequences, something that is not unknown in the attempts to exterminate species. For example, DDT had a host of undesirable effects. I do not, of course, think that modifying mosquitoes will create some sort of 1950s style mega-mosquitoes that will rampage across the land. However, there are reasonable grounds to be concerned that genetic modification might have unexpected and unpleasant results and this possibility should be seriously considered.

A final point I will address is a practical one, namely that even if a species is exterminated by genetic modification another species might simply take its place. In the case of mosquitoes it seems likely that if one type of mosquito is wiped out, then another one will simply move into the niche vacated and the problem, such as a mosquito transmitted illness will return. The concern is, of course, that resources would have been expended and a species exterminated for nothing. Naturally, if there are good grounds to believe that the extermination would be effective and ethically acceptable, then this would be another matter.

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Video Games, Movies & Violence

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Each time a mass shooting occurs in the United States, there is an effort to determine the causes (or lay the blame). This process generally follows a predictable script. Those who hate guns, blame the guns. Those who love guns say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Those of the cult of pop psychology appear on the news shows to discuss whatever “theory” they are currently selling in their self-help books. Those who study the workings of the mind present their latest theories. And, of course, there is the ritual blaming of violent video games and violent movies. This time around, the National Rifle Association explicitly blamed Hollywood while proposing that the United States should post an armed guard in each school.

While I have written often about video games, movies and violence I clearly have my own small part in the scripted play and here I am writing about them again.

The archetype argument for the claim that the arts (in this case video games and movies) can cause people to behave badly is based on Plato’s argument in the Republic. In that work, Plato contends that the arts can corrupt the soul and cause people to give in to feelings such as lust, anger and humor in ways that they should not. In the case of mass shootings, the basic idea remains the same: exposure to violent content in video games and movies can cause people to engage in real violence, such as engaging in a mass shooting at a movie theater or school.

The idea that violent video games and movies can affect people is not implausible. In fact, I have my two standard arguments in support of the claim that violent media can play a causal role in actual violent behavior.

First, repeated exposure to game or movie violence can condition a person to accept violence as normal. This is because people generally base their conception of normal based partially on what they generally experience. So, if fictional violence becomes a normal part of a person’s life, it makes sense that she might become desensitized to violence (or accustomed to it) and thus less more likely to give in to violent impulses.

Censoring such violence would reduce the exposure of people (or certain people) to virtual violence and thus they would presumably be less likely to be violent.

My second standard argument is based on the idea that the violence of movies and games is a curriculum of virtual violence that often teaches that violence is an effective and acceptable solution to problems. Popular video games such as Halo 4 and World of Warcraft are focused on violence, albeit in the context of science fiction and fantasy. There are also popular first person shooters, such as the Call of Duty series, that involve engaging in violence against other virtual humans. There is also the infamous Grand Theft Auto series of games in which one plays a bad person doing bad things. In the case of movies, even movies such as the Avengers and the Hobbit include considerable violence. Given the lessons taught by these movies and games, it makes some sense to think that people exposed to them might be more inclined to consider violence an option, perhaps in emulation of the games or movies. As such, perhaps some blame can be placed on video games and movies.

While a reasonable case can be made in favor of being suspicious of violent video games and movies, there is the rather important matter of sorting out the extent of the influence. That is, working out the causality of the matter.

Obviously enough, exposure to violent movies or games is not a necessary condition for a person engaging in violent behavior. A necessary causal condition is a condition that is required for the effect to occur. Put another way, without the necessary condition, what it is necessary for cannot be the case. For example, the presence of oxygen is a necessary causal condition for human life.

While humans have been engaging in violence since there have been humans, movies and video games are rather recent inventions. As such, exposure to them cannot be a necessary cause of violence. After all, there would have been no violence until they were invented if this were the case.

Naturally, it could be claimed that any violent art (such as a story about war) or violent games (like chess) can cause people to be violent and these are rather old. However, the obvious counter is that humans were probably killers before they were artists and gamers.

Equally obvious is the fact that exposure to violent movies or video games is not a sufficient cause of violence. A sufficient causal condition is such that it will bring about its effect by itself. For example, decapitating a human is sufficient to cause death.

Millions of people (including me and many of my friends) have played violent video games without ever having engaged in acts of significant violence, such as murder or mass murder. Also, billions of people have probably seen violent movies without engaging in such violence. As such, exposure to violent movies or video games is clearly not a sufficient condition.

As might be imagined, sensible people do not claim that such exposure is a necessary or sufficient cause of violence. However, there are other types of causal connections.

One plausible type of causal connection is that exposure to such video games or movies is a contributory cause. That is, such exposure is one more straw on the camel’s back and the weight of various causes can result in that final break. On this view, merely seeing such virtual violence would not cause someone to engage in violence. However, it does contribute to the person’s tendency towards violence and hence is a causal factor.  As might be imagined, determining the contribution of a contributory cause can be challenging—especially if the contribution is fairly weak.

Sorting out such weak casual factors typically requires relatively large causal scale studies (or experiments). In such cases, the goal is to determine the effect of the alleged cause on the population in question. When talking about causation in a population, the bar is set fairly low (but sensibly so). To claim that cause C causes effect E in population P is to say that there would be more cases of effect E in population P if every member of P were exposed to C than if none were so exposed. This does make sense. After all, if C does bring about a difference, even a tiny one, it would be a causal factor.

On the face of it, it is not implausible to claim that exposing everyone on the planet to violent video games or violent movies would result in some (more than zero) increase in violence. However, this is no doubt true of many other things—even seemingly innocuous things like refined sugar or Justin Bieber’s music.

Even if it is assumed that such exposure can have a causal role in actual violence, there is the rather obvious concern about the extent of the casual role and to what extent (if any) this warrants controlling people’s exposure to these violent movies and video games.

As noted above, people who were never exposed to violent video games or movies have engaged in violence over the centuries. Also, the overwhelming majority of people who have been exposed to violent video games or movies have not engaged in unusual acts of violence. As such, the causal connection (if there is one) seems to be extremely weak.

Given such exposure could play a causal role it might be tempting to support the censorship of such violent works. After all, reducing the chance of violence might be regarded as worth the infringement of the freedom of expression. As might be imagined, when people are still emotionally reeling from a terrible event there is often a desire to do anything that might lower the chances of such a thing happening again. Of course, making a rational decision requires considering the matter properly and this involves considering the potential harms and costs of such an approach, however well intentioned.

Obviously enough, human societies typically operate in a way that involves tolerating things that cause harms based on the perceived benefits of those things. For example, although tens of thousands of people die each year in events involving automobiles, we tolerate automobiles because of their benefits. As another example, we allow drugs with awful side effects to be legally sold presumably because of their benefits. We also tolerate war because of the alleged benefits. We do, of course, ban some things because of the harms they do (or could do). For example, people cannot legally sell contaminated food. As another example, I cannot legally own biochemical weapons.

Sorting through the various things that are banned or illegal, it would seem that we are generally willing to tolerate a considerable amount of harm provided that there are some benefits (typically profits). Consistency would, of course, require us to apply the same principle to violent movies and violent video games.

As such, one way to look at the matter is to imagine that violent movies and video games were pharmaceuticals, foods or automobiles and apply the same basic standards used to assess whether such things should be banned.

As noted above, millions of people are exposed to violent video games or movies. These people typically enjoy them and most of them certainly seem to be unharmed. In fact, people seem to be in far more danger from the junk food they typically eat and drink at the movies or while playing video games. They are, obviously, vastly less dangerous than automobiles in terms of the body count generated—even if we assume that such exposure does cause people to behave violently. Video games and movies are also big money makers.

Violent video games and movies also seem to have far fewer negative side effects than many legal medications—even those sold without prescriptions. Also, there are reasonable grounds to believe that people can, as Aristotle argued, experience an emotional catharsis by being exposed to the arts. As such, while some people might experience negative side effects from such exposure, other people might be “medicating” themselves by exhausting their violent impulses in art rather than reality.

As such, if censoring video games and movies would be warranted because of the alleged harms, then consistency would require that we also ban many other things that are clearly far more dangerous. After all, if the goal is to prevent harm and death, it hardly matters whether those who die do so because of a bullet, a car, a pill, or a Big Gulp.

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The Christmas Office Party

God knows why, but I’m still pondering issues of consent (though why what follows is relevant in this respect might not be immediately clear). Here’s another thought experiment.

It’s the evening of the Christmas office party. You know that you’re going to be drinking, and you know that this will inevitably impair your judgement, so you leave your car at home and travel to the venue by public transport. It is relevant here that part of your thinking in doing so is not wanting to risk the possibility that at the end of the evening in a moment of alcoholic induced madness you’ll attempt to drive yourself home.

The evening is a blast, and you drink a lot, which would not be a problem, except your partner shows up at the party, and hands you the keys to your car, saying they’d had to borrow it because their own car wouldn’t start, and that your car is in the parking lot outside. Your partner then rushes off to catch a bus to the airport for an overnight flight.

At this point, you’ve easily drunk enough so that your judgement is significantly impaired. It’s a cold night, you don’t fancy waiting around to catch a cab, plus your car is just outside the front door, so you decide to drive home.

Unfortunately, on your way home, a child steps in front of your car, you’re not able to stop in time (partly because your reactions are impaired by the alcohol you’ve consumed), and you run the child down.

These things are true:

a) You are not blasé about the dangers of drink driving. Your sober self would judge drink driving – regardless of its outcome – to be a significant wrong;

b) If it had been possible for your sober self to make a judgement on behalf of your drunk self then you would never have got into the car;

c) At the point at which you were given your keys, and told your car was just outside, you were already a long way past the point at which your judgement was significant impaired.

The question is – in this situation are you morally culpable for driving under the influence and (therefore) the accident?

Okay, my hunch is that people will say that “Yes, I am culpable”, but… I’m not sure that this judgement will make much sense without invoking some sort of “ideal-type” rational actor who given the same level of intoxication would not have made the decision to drive home.

Over to you. (If you’re not too busy doing Christmas-type things.)

Mental Illness or Evil?

1212mentalhealth-RW

(Photo credit: Robbie Wroblewski)

When a person does terrible things that seem utterly senseless, like murder children, there is sometimes a division in the assessment of the person. Some people will take the view that the person is mentally ill on the grounds that a normal, sane person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Others take the view that the person is evil on the grounds that a normal, non-evil person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Both of these views express an attempt to explain and understand what occurred. As might be imagined, the distinction between being evil and being mentally ill is a matter of significant concern.

One key point of concern is the matter of responsibility and the correct way to respond to a person who has done something terrible. If a person acts from mental illness rather than evil, then it seems somewhat reasonable to regard them as not being accountable for the action (at least to the degree the person is ill). After all, if something terrible occurs because a person suffers from a physical illness, the person is generally not held accountable (there are, obviously, exceptions). For example, my running friend Jay told me about a situation in which a person driving on his street had an unexpected seizure. Oddly, the person’s foot stomped down on the gas pedal and the car rocketed down the street, smashing into another car and coming to a stop in someone’s back yard. The car could have easily plowed over my friend, injuring or killing him. However, since the person was not physically in control of his actions (and he had no reason to think he would have a seizure) he was not held morally accountable. That is, he did nothing wrong. If a person had intentionally tried to murder my friend with his car, then that would be seen as an evil action. Unless, perhaps, the driver was mentally ill in a way that disabled him in a way comparable to a stroke. In that case, the driver might be as “innocent” as the stroke victim.

There seem to be at least two ways that a mentally ill person might be absolved of moral responsibility (at least to the degree she is mentally ill).

First, the person might be suffering from what could be classified as perceptual and interpretative disorders. That is, they have mental defects that cause them to perceive and interpret reality incorrectly.  For example, a person suffering from extreme paranoia might think that my friend Jay intends to steal his brain, even Jay has no such intention. In such a case, it seems reasonable to not regard the person as evil if he tries to harm Jay—after all, he is acting in what he thinks is legitimate self-defense rather than from a wicked motivation. In contrast, someone who wanted to kill Jay to rob his house or just for fun would be acting in an evil way. Put in general terms, mental conditions that distort a person’s perception and interpretation of reality might lead him to engage in acts of wrongful violence even though his moral reasoning might remain normal.  Following Thomas Aquinas, it seems sensible to consider that such people might be following their conscience as best they can, only they have distorted information to work with in their decision making process and this distortion results from mental illness.

Second, the person might be suffering from what could be regarded as a disorder of judgment. That is, the person’s ability to engage in reasoning is damaged or defective due to a mental illness. The person might (or might not) have correct information to work with, but the processing is defective in a way that causes a person to make judgments that would be regarded as evil if made by a “normal” person. For example, a person might infer from the fact that someone is wearing a blue hat that the person should be killed.

One obvious point of concern is that “normal” people are generally bad at reasoning and commit fallacies with alarming regularity. As such, there would be a need to sort out the sort of reasoning that is merely bad reasoning from reasoning that would count as being mentally ill. One point worth considering is that bad reasoning could be fixed by education whereas a mental illness would not be fixed by learning, for example, logic.

A second obvious point of concern is discerning between mental illness as a cause of such judgments and evil as a cause of such judgments. After all, evil people can be seen as having a distorted sense of judgment in regards to value. In fact, some philosophers (such as Kant and Socrates) regard evil as a mental defect or a form of irrationality. This has some intuitive appeal—after all, people who do terrible and senseless things would certainly seem to have something wrong with them. Whether this is a moral wrongness or health wrongness is, of course, the big question here.

One of the main reasons to try to sort out the difference is figuring out whether a person should be treated (cured) or punished (which might also cure the person). As noted above, a person who did something terrible because of mental illness would (to a degree) not be accountable for the act and hence should not be punished (or the punishment should be duly tempered). For some it is tempting to claim that the choice of evil is an illusion because there is no actual free choice (that is, we do what we do because of the biochemical and electrical workings of the bodies that are us). As such, people should not be punished, rather they should be repaired. Of course, there is a certain irony in such advice: if we do not have choice, then advising us to not punish makes no sense since we will just do what we do. Of course, the person advising against punishment would presumably have no choice but to give such advice.

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Training the Will

In general, will is a very useful thing to have. After all, it allows a person to overcome factors that would make his decisions for him, such as pain, fear, anger, fatigue, lust or weakness. I would, of course, be remiss to not mention that the will can be used to overcome generally positive factors such as compassion, love and mercy as well. The will, as Kant noted, can apparently select good or evil with equal resolve. However, I will set aside the concern regarding the bad will and focus on training the will.

Based on my own experience, the will is rather like stamina—while people vary in what they get by nature, it can be improved by proper training. This, of course, nicely matches Aristotle’s view of the virtues.

While there are no doubt many self-help books discussing how to train the will with various elaborate and strange methods, the process is actually very straightforward and is like training any attribute. To be specific, it is mainly a matter of exercising the capacity but not doing so to excess (and thus burning out) or deficiency (and thus getting no gain). To borrow from Aristotle, one way of developing the will in regards to temperance is to practice refraining from pleasures to the proper degree (the mean) and this will help train the will. As another example, one can build will via athletic activities by continuing when pain and fatigue are pushing one to stop. Naturally, one should not do this to excess (because of the possibility of injury) nor be deficient in it (because there will be no gain).

As far as simple and easy ways to train the will, meditation and repetitive mental exercises (such as repeating prayers or simply repeated counting) seem to help in developing this attribute.

One advantage of the indirect training of the will, such as with running, is that it also tends to develop other resources that can be used in place of the will. To use a concrete example, when a person tries to get into shape to run, sticking with the running will initially take a lot of will because the pain and fatigue will begin quickly. However, as the person gets into shape it will take longer for them to start to hurt and feel fatigued. As such, the person will not need to use as much will when running (and if the person becomes a crazy runner like me, then she will need to use a lot of will to take a rest day from running). To borrow a bit from Aristotle, once a person becomes properly habituated to an activity, then the will cost of that activity becomes much less—thus making it easier to engage in that activity.  For example, a person who initially has to struggle to eat healthy food rather than junk food will find that resisting not only builds their will but also makes it easier to resist the temptations of junk.

Another interesting point of consideration is what could be called will surrogates. A will surrogate functions much like the will by allowing a person to resist factors that would otherwise “take control” of the person. However, what makes the will surrogate a surrogate is that it is something that is not actually the will—it merely serves a similar function. Having these would seem to “build the will” by providing a surrogate that can be called upon when the person’s own will is failing—sort of a mental tag team situation.

For example, a religious person could use his belief in God as a will surrogate to resist temptations forbidden by his faith, such as adultery. That is, he is able to do what he wills rather than what his lust is pushing him to do. As another example, a person might use pride or honor as will surrogates—she, for example, might push through the pain and fatigue of a 10K race because of her pride. Other emotions (such as love) and factors could also serve as will surrogates by enabling a person to do what he wills rather than what he is being pushed to do.

One obvious point of concern regarding will surrogates is that they could be seen not as allowing the person to do as he would will when he lacks his own will resources but as merely being other factors that “make the decision” for the person. For example, if a person resists having an affair with a coworker because of his religious beliefs, then it could be contended that he has not chosen to not have the affair. Rather, his religious belief (and perhaps fear of God) was stronger than his lust. If so, those who gain what appears to be willpower from such sources are not really gaining will. Rather they merely have other factors that make them do or not do things in a way that resembles the actions of the will.

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Gaukroger, religion, and the rise of science

I have been reading two huge and detailed books on the rise of modern science: Stephen Gaukroger’s The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1210-1685 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); and Gaukroger’s The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1680-1760 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). These are the first two volumes (the only ones so far) in an ongoing series by Gaukroger examining the advance of science.

I started on this exercise in response to an anonymous reviewer for Wiley-Blackwell, which will be publishing my co-authored book with Udo Schuklenk, 50 Great Myths About Atheism. The idea put to us by the reviewer was that Gaukroger has demonstrated the vital role of Christian theology in assisting the consolidation of science in early modern Europe. I must say that I’m not totally convinced.

As its title implies, the first volume covers European intellectual history from the rise of neo-Aristotelian natural philosophy in the 13th century, through developments in the 16th and early 17th centuries, involving Copernicus, Galileo, Hobbes, Gassendi, Kepler, Descartes, and others, to the spectacular flowering of science in the work of Sir Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, and many others in the late 17th century.

Obviously, all these men appeared in cultures that gave them the intellectual and other resources for their work, but when you trace through the detail of what motivated them, how they influenced each other, and so on, not much of that has to do with Christianity. What most comes across is their fascination with experiments, thought experiments, and each other’s ideas, and in many cases their joy-cum-obsession with the new tools that had become available to them in the form of scientific instruments, precision crafted experimental apparatus, and increasingly powerful kinds of mathematics.

Gaukroger sees his central question as being why a large-scale, successfully legitimating consolidation of science took place in Europe in the 17th century (and thereafter) – when science tends to be fragmented and stop-start, with long periods of stagnation, whenever it has appeared in a promising form in other times, places, and cultures. He answers that the natural philosophy of the Scientific Revolution was attractive to many thinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries precisely because it appeared to have promise for the renewal of natural theology.

There may be something in this, although before I go on let’s pause to note it is very different from saying that there was something about Christianity that made it inherently pro-science in the first place. Gaukroger does not appear to maintain any such thesis (and nor, as far as I know, does the anonymous reviewer that I mentioned).

Indeed, Gaukroger notes that there was a considerable tradition within ancient and medieval Christianity of opposition to natural philosophy (and hence anything resembling science), seeing it as distracting or even idolatrous. Nothing in his books seems to give late medieval scholasticism much credit for the rise of science (it appears that whatever science it produced in the 13th and 14th centuries was not fruitful, and stagnated much like in other cultures that showed promising beginnings in scientific thought, such as China and medieval Islam). Indeed, even Aristotle’s form of natural philosophy was initially resisted by the 13th-century Church, although the synthesis produced by Aquinas was later given the Church’s endorsement.

Renaissance natural theology was largely an attempt to reconcile Aristotelianism with theology, which may well have been intellectually fruitful in some ways, but the Church was harsh to anyone who drew conclusions that strayed beyond orthodoxy. If anything, Christianity seems to have acted more as a hindrance than otherwise to free inquiry into the phenomena of the natural world (though, of course, even resistance can sometimes be inspiring).

Late in The Emergence of a Scientific Culture, Gaukroger discusses the (largely British) phenomenon of physico-theology: the attempts by some theologians, scientists (as we’d now call them), and philosophers to reconcile theology with what was emerging from science, or even to use scientific findings to support or revitalise theology. He writes interestingly of thinkers, such as Ralph Cudworth, who embraced a version of the atomist view of the natural world that had become popular within science, while attempting at the same time to modify it and to include it in their metaphysical systems. Gaukroger then deals at some length with others who attempted to reconcile scientific theories of the formation of the Earth with the Genesis account of creation and the biblical chronology of history. He puts an impressive enough case that in the 1680s and 1690s, especially in the UK, there was a widespread view that natural philosophy could be used as a source of evidence for God.

But none of shows that the successful consolidation of science in the 17th and 18th centuries had much to with Christianity. On the face of it, I’d have thought that the successful consolidation of science at this point in history owed more simply to its unprecedented theoretical successes, the causes of which were contingent and complicated – perhaps having to do with some of the personalities involved, perhaps with non-religious aspects of European culture, perhaps with breakthroughs in mathematics and scientific instrumentation. And perhaps with other things. I don’t see any densely argued case for giving much credit to religion.

About the most that could be said with any confidence is that, back in, say, 1600, orthodox theology might have looked like a very formidable barrier for science to overcome. After all, as Gaukroger says in The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility, “Christianity … had traditionally laid claim to universal competence in all matters of understanding the world and our place in it, most notably in its Augustinean version”, but as he immediately adds this claim was decisively weakened during the seventeenth century. Despite the terrible execution of Giordano Bruno in 1600, for a mix of sins in the eyes of the Church, and the persecution of Galileo not long after, Christianity did not do all that much to block the rise of science in the second half of the century.

Given Christianity’s longstanding claims to universal epistemic competence, it is no wonder that it came into conflict with Aristotelian natural philosophy and later with early modern science, personified by Galileo. These stood to draw their own conclusions and to challenge theology’s authority.

Thus, Gaukroger is doubtless correct when he makes much of the issue of the relationship between the epistemic authority of Christianity and that of natural philosophy (or science). He says, I think justly, that the issue of the relationship between “the kind of understanding of the world that natural philosophy provides, and that provided by Christian revelation and natural theology” was a pressing one in Christian Europe from the beginning of the 13th century, when Aristotelian texts and doctrines were introduced into the intellectual culture.

Given the intellectual hegemony of Christianity, it can be argued that the ability of science to consolidate itself depended on its relationship with Christian thought. On this hinged the ability of science to establish itself in the late 17th and early 18th centuries “as a permanent and integral feature of Western intellectual life” (The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility).

During this period, as Gaukroger reminds us, it was widely understood as a requirement for natural philosophy that its theories be compatible with shared assumptions in Europe about morality, our place in the world, and religious thinking in general. In the upshot, science conformed – to some extent, it avoided heresy by carefully defining its field of inquiry as the natural world (while drawing a sharp boundary with the supernatural world), and to some extent it produced theories that ultimately appealed to the actions of God, as we find in the work of Newton.

All this, however, is not so much Christian theology nurturing science as simply not proving to be such a formidable barrier as first appeared. To some extent, it was a matter of science accommodating itself to Christianity. To some extent, it may, indeed, have been certain theologians welcoming the findings of science as a resource for theology. But to some extent it may simply be that Christianity had lost much of its intellectual hegemony for totally different reasons – partly, perhaps, because of the disastrous Thirty Years’ War, and partly because of extensive contact with other cultures in the New World and the Far East, which also tended to undermine absolutism and certainty.

Despite Gaukroger’s extensive scholarship, there’s still a story to research and tell here – a story about how Christianity increasingly lost its intellectual authority, and why it was, perhaps, increasingly less in a position to hinder the rise of science and competition from other epistemic rivals.

I’m glad I had my attention drawn to these books. I began reading them to see what they have to say about the interaction between early science and Christian theology. But, although that is a recurring theme, it does not dominate the discussion by any means, and much of the fascination is simply in getting a consolidated and detailed account of how science developed, hypothesis by hypothesis, contributor by contributor, step by step, in its early centuries, and how it interacted with much else, such as the broader literary and intellectual culture of Europe. Taken together, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture and The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility form an extraordinarily scholarly and exhaustive account of what was going on during a crucial period in intellectual history, as high medieval culture gave way to early modernity, and then the Enlightenment era.

[This post is based on a series of posts over on my personal blog.]

[Pssst: Check out my books at Amazon. Not least Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.]

God & Sandy Hook

Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, speak...

. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The murders at Sandy Hook Elementary school brought the problem of evil once again into the media spotlight. While the specifics of the matter change with each horrible incident, the basic question remains the same: why does God allow evil to occur? I have considered this matter in various other essays, but here I will take a look at what two prominent members of America’s religious right have said about the matter.

Former governor and one time presidential contender Michael Huckabee said “We ask why there’s violence in our schools but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage because we’ve made it a place where we don’t want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability.”

While Huckabee’s remark has been taken as claiming that God allowed the massacre because American public schools do not religious activities (such as prayer) and religious education (as opposed to teaching about religion), it can also be taken as expressing a slightly different view. Rather than claiming that God is being spiteful and allowing children to be slaughtered because He is experiencing a divine anger, Huckabee could be taken as asserting that the killings at schools occur because people do not have the proper religious education in public schools. Presumably Huckabee believes that if people received the correct religious education in public schools, then such killings would be less likely to occur.

The idea that the correct moral education will result in better behavior is an old one and was developed extensive in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics—although I am sure that Huckabee and Aristotle would disagree about the specifics of the education since Aristotle was not a Christian. As such, if Huckabee is simply claiming that the killings at schools are caused by a failure of moral education, then his claim has some degree of plausibility. Of course, whether or not bringing Christianity back into public schools would reduce the chances of violence in America is another matter. One interesting point worth considering is that as people like Huckabee claim that society has grown worse as it has allegedly “removed God”, Steven Pinker argued in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that violence has been on the decline. While correlation is not proof of causation, this is a matter worth thinking about especially since Thomas Hobbes noted that one major cause of violence is disputes over religion.

Turning back to the problem of evil, Huckabee’s explanation does not really address this concern effectively. While it might explain why people do bad things in terms of a lack of proper education, this does not explain why God would allow the children and the faculty of Sandy Hook to be slaughtered. Bryan Fischer does, however, take this matter on directly.

Speaking about Sandy Hook, Bryan Fischer said “And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentlemen.”

Fischer’s explanation is very straightforward: God is too polite to go where he is not invited and hence He allowed the slaughter of children. This seems problematic, to say the least.

On the face of it, Fischer seems to be claiming that God’s sense of etiquette trumps His morality. That is, He would permit slaughter to occur rather than act in a way that might be regarded is impolite. This certainly seems to be an implausible claim. After all, consider the following analogy. Suppose I was accustomed to stopping by a friend’s house to get a drink from his garden hose while on my long summer runs. But then he got divorced and his wife got the house. While she does not dislike me, she asks me to no longer stop by to use the hose. Now, imagine that I am running by one day and she and her daughter are being attacked in her backyard. While I could easily defeat the attacker and save the two, I just run on by because I am no longer invited there. Intuitively, that would be morally wrong of me—even if I elected not to engage the attacker, I should at least do something. Also, if my reason is that I am not invited, then there are two obvious responses. First, it seems intuitively plausible to hold that my moral duty to help people in danger outweighs my moral duty to not be impolite. Second, it seems reasonable to think that my friend’s ex-wife and daughter would be happy to invite me to help them in their time of need. Obviously, since I am a decent person I would rush to help the two people in danger. If God is at least as good as me, He would presumably do the same. Also, God has nothing to worry about—the attacker would pose no threat to Him.

Another point of interest is that Fischer certainly seems to indicate that God would be glad to protect children if he were invited back. If he were right about this, this would seem to indicate that God would protect children in such circumstances. However, he seems to be exceptionally wrong about this. After all, God has allowed people of faith to die. He even has allowed children to be murdered in His churches. As such, the idea that God would protect children if we only asked him seems to be absurd. People have obviously asked and God has done nothing.

Of course, it could be countered that people have failed to properly invite God—that is, God would have helped if they had asked in the right way. Going back to the analogy given above, this would be like me running past by friend’s ex-wife and daughter and refusing to stop because their cries for help were not worded properly or otherwise defective. However, I would obviously help them regardless of how they requested aid—that is what a decent person would do. As noted above, presumably God is at least as good as I am, so if I would help regardless of the wording of the invite, so would God.

Overall, Huckabee and Fischer do not give an adequate response to the question of why God allowed the slaughter to occur. To be fair to them, no one ever has and probably no one ever will.

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Begging to differ

The current issue of tpm features a forum on disagreement, a topic working its way up the epistemologist’s agenda.  The question is, what should you do when you and another equally reasonable, well-informed, rational person disagree with one another.  Should this kind of disagreement give us pause?  Catherine Z Elgin writes:

Conciliatory thinkers such as Hilary Kornblith hold that it should. If Fred recognises George as his intellectual equal, he has no basis for thinking that his opinion is better than George’s (or that George’s is better than his). So when they disagree, conciliationists maintain, both should suspend judgement. Advocates of resoluteness such as Thomas Kelly recommend holding fast. If intellectual equals who disagree are always required to suspend judgement, scepticism looms. Given the range of topics on which we disagree with our intellectual equals, we know very little. Resoluteness is permissible, they maintain, because everyone makes mistakes. It is open to Fred to think that where they disagree, George must be mistaken. He is then within his rights to dismiss George’s opinion. Unfortunately, George can think the same about Fred. Resoluteness fosters dogmatism; we are always entitled to dismiss the opinions of intellectual equals who disagree with us by assuming they have made a mistake. Neither scepticism nor dogmatism is an attractive option. A third alternative is that disagreement among intellectual equals provides some reason to rethink one’s position but does not require revising or repudiating it. In that case, parties could reasonably agree to disagree. The challenge is to make room for this position.

If you dismiss the claims of your equals, you’re being dogmatic, but if you suspend judgement when you encounter equals who disagree with you, scepticism looms.  Interesting stuff.  You can read the whole article here.

Mental Illness, Violence & Liberty

Human brain NIH

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The mass murder that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary school has created significant interest in both gun control and mental health. In this essay I will focus on the matter of mental health.

When watching the coverage on CNN, I saw a segment in which Dr. Gupta noted that currently people can only be involuntarily detained for mental health issues when they present an imminent danger. He expressed concern about this high threshold, noting that this has the practical impact that authorities generally cannot act until someone has done something harmful and then it can be rather too late. One rather important matter is sorting out what the threshold for official intervention.

On the one hand, it can be argued that the relevant authorities need to be proactive. They should not wait until they learn that someone with a mental issue is plotting to shoot children before acting. They certainly should not wait until after someone with a mental issue has murdered dozens of people. They have to determine whether or not a person with a mental issue (or issues) is likely to engage in such behavior and deal with the person well before people are hurt.  That is, the authorities need to catch and deal with the person while he is still a pre-criminal rather than an actual criminal.

In terms of arguing in favor of this, a plausible line of approach would be a utilitarian argument: dealing with people with mental issues before they commit acts of violence will prevent the harmful consequences that otherwise would have occurred.

On the other hand, there is the obvious moral concern with allowing authorities to detain and deal with people not for something they have done or have even plotted to do but merely might do.  Obviously, there is rather serious practical challenge of sorting out what a person might do when they are not actually conspiring or planning a misdeed. There is also the moral concern of justifying coercing or detaining a person for what they might do. Intuitively, the mere fact that a person could or might do something wrong does not warrant acting against the person. The obvious exception is when there is adequate evidence to establish that a person is plotting or conspiring to commit a crime. However, these sorts of things are already covered by the law, so what would seem to be under consideration would be coercing people without adequate evidence that they are plotting or conspiring to commit crimes. On the face of it, this would seem unacceptable.

One obvious way to justify using the coercive power of the state against those with mental issues before they commit or even plan a crime is to argue that certain mental issues are themselves adequate evidence that a person is reasonably likely to engage in a crime, even though nothing she has done meets the imminent danger threshold.

On an abstract level, this does have a certain appeal. To use an analogy to physical health, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a condition occurring, then it make sense to treat for that condition before it manifests. Likewise, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a person with mental issues engaging in violence against others, then it makes sense to treat for that condition before it manifests.

It might be objected that people can refuse medical treatment for physical conditions and hence they should be able to do the same for dangerous mental issues. The obvious reply is that if a person refuses treatment for a physical ailment, he is only endangering himself. But if someone refuses treatment for a condition that can result in her engaging in violence against others, then she is putting others in danger without their consent and she does not have the liberty or right to do this.

Moving into the realm of the concrete, the matter becomes rather problematic. One rather obvious point of concern is that mental health science is lagging far behind the physical health sciences (I am using the popular rather than philosophical distinction between mental and physical here) and the physical health sciences are still rather limited. As such, using the best mental health science of the day to predict how likely a person is likely to engage in violence (in the absence of evidence of planning and actual past crimes) will typically result in a prediction of dubious accuracy. To use the coercive power of the state against an individual on the basis of such dubious evidence would not be morally acceptable. After all, a person can only be justly denied liberty on adequate grounds and such a prediction does not seem strong enough to warrant such action.

It might be countered that in the light of such events as the shootings at Sandy Hook and Colorado, there are legitimate grounds to use the coercive power of the state against people who might engage in such actions on the grounds that preventing another mass murder is worth the price of denying people their freedom on mere suspicion.

As might be imagined, without very clear guidelines and limitations, this sort of principle could easily be extended to anyone who might commit a crime—thus justifying locking up people for being potential criminals. This would certainly be wrong.

It might be countered that there is no danger of the principle being extended and that such worries are worries based on a slippery slope. After all, one might say, the principle only applies to those deemed to have the right (or rather wrong) sort of mental issues. Normal people, one might say in a calm voice, have nothing to worry about.

However, it seems that normal people might. After all, it is normal for people to have the occasional mental issue (such as depression) and there is the concern that the application of the fuzzy science of mental health might result in incorrect determinations of mental issues.

To close, I am not saying that we should not reconsider the threshold for applying the coercive power of the state to people with mental issues. Rather, my point is that this should be done with due care to avoid creating more harm than it would prevent.

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Where Do You Set The Bar For Sexual Consent?

I’ve just completed a new interactive activity for my Philosophy Experiments web site. It deals with some of the issues of consent that I’ve been thinking and blogging about (e.g., here & here) over these last few months.

But You’ll Regret It In the Morning

The data is already showing something interesting – namely, that men and women tend to have a slightly different attitude towards some of the complications surrounding consent. Basically, it seems men are more likely than women to think a sexual encounter is morally permissible in the (arguably) borderline situations the activity focuses upon.

As usual, let me know if you spot any glaring errors, lacunae, etc.

Oh yes, I’ve also written a piece for the Huffington Post that covers similar issues.