Advanced Search

I don't know if this question falls as a scientific question but to my knowledge

I don't know if this question falls as a scientific question but to my knowledge, this is more of a question on the nature and extent of science, so I think this is more philosophical than scientific. My question is: is it possible for scientists to create a well-functioning human brain, or is the nature of consciousness so intractable that creating a brain would be next to impossible?

If scientists were to create a well-functioning human brain, I suggest it probably would have to involve the brain being part of an anatomically well-functioning body, whether the body is human or humanoid or mechanical (in which case one would have a cyborg of some kind). Philosophers have entertained bizarre thought experiments in which human brains function in vats and are subject to systematic, misleading electro-chemical stimulation, but I suggest this would not be a case of a WELL-FUNCTIONING human brain. It would instead by in a profoundly dysfunctional situation. Are there good philosophical reasons for thinking that it is impossible for scientists to create something that is anatomically an exact replica of a human being such as you and me? Some might argue that "being human" essentially involves the reproductive and nurturing processes that we underwent (and so they would seek to rule out conceptually the idea that a human brain and body can be manufactured in a lab), but this would (in my view) be strained (not obvious). I rather think it is in principle to produce a replica. What about consciousness? I am inclined to think the nature and reality of consciousness would impede the project of scientifically constructing a "well-functioning human brain."

As someone who is firmly confident that consciousness is the most obvious fact about our lives (I am not at all tempted by those who seek to deny the existence of consciousness or the mental), I am led to think that if there is a physical replica of me (and I am conscious), then the replica will be conscious. This would not, however, be the equivalent of asserting that consciousness is itself physical. One might hold that consciousness (as a non-physical state) supervenes or emerges because of the laws of nature or because of the inherent causal powers of physical objects and relations or because of an act of God, and so on. Even so, while I note that this is my inclination, it seems to be possible that (in contemporary jargon in philosophy of mind) there may be zombies -- beings who are physically indistinguishable from conscious embodied beings but who lack consciousness. This is a highly controversial claim. You might do a search for Dean Zimmerman on zombies for further reflection.

If scientists were to create a well-functioning human brain, I suggest it probably would have to involve the brain being part of an anatomically well-functioning body, whether the body is human or humanoid or mechanical (in which case one would have a cyborg of some kind). Philosophers have entertained bizarre thought experiments in which human brains function in vats and are subject to systematic, misleading electro-chemical stimulation, but I suggest this would not be a case of a WELL-FUNCTIONING human brain. It would instead by in a profoundly dysfunctional situation. Are there good philosophical reasons for thinking that it is impossible for scientists to create something that is anatomically an exact replica of a human being such as you and me? Some might argue that "being human" essentially involves the reproductive and nurturing processes that we underwent (and so they would seek to rule out conceptually the idea that a human brain and body can be manufactured in a lab), but this would (in my...

It is often stated that science is not 'value-free'. However, there are certain

It is often stated that science is not 'value-free'. However, there are certain established facts about the physical world, for example, that a water molecule contains one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms, which irrespecitve of the values of observer or the social context in which this is observed, is just that, ie. an observable, indisptuable fact. How then can political or social environments alter or intrude upon such scientific facts whether they be about this planet, biology or whatever scientific enterprise one is studying. Surely, science in this regard is 'value-free'?

Great question; thank you for raising your point. I believe that the when the claim is made that science is not value-free various things may be involved. There might be at least four points to consider.

First, there is the thesis that the very practice of philosophy itself involves values --minimally, given a realist view of truth (which I hold and I think you do too, e.g. water is H20 if true if and only if water is H20)-- a commitment to discovering the truth about various phenomena, being reliable or trust-worthy in recording observations and constructing hypotheses, theories, reporting anomalies given such and such a theory, and so on. Perhaps this is not radical news, for it seems that virtually any social interaction in which we trust each others' reports / testimony, all sorts of values and commitments are relevant. But what might be added are three other points.

Second, the practice of science itself is guided in light of what scientists (or those who support the practice of science) believe to be valuable (or worthy of scientific inquiry).

In addition to that (number three) Thomas Kuhn, a prominent 20th century historian and philosopher of science, famously argued that scientific progress is often suffused with matters of value and subjectivity when individual scientists choose to retain normal science (as practiced in conventional, institutionally entrenched labs, classrooms, institutions, etc) or seek to bring about a scientific revolution (e.g. as we find with Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein...). All this is compatible with realism and your initial point that the atomic structure of water (for example) does not depend upon political or social contexts or the personal subjectivity of observers.

Fourth, perhaps physics and chemistry (which involve the water example) seem straight forward facts as distinct from values, but when we move in the direction of biology, values of various sorts come into play. This might be especially apparent when scientists employ terms like 'health' and 'disease' --whether in terms of organisms or ecosystems. The health of an organism seems the equivalent to the notion that the organism has some good or can be in a (for it) good state. It is also not uncommon for philosophers of science to contend that in the social sciences various concepts are social constructions (e.g. the diagnosis ADHD) and reflect more our values than "the facts."

I hope that is a helpful beginning. The philosophy of science entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is very helpful.

Great question; thank you for raising your point. I believe that the when the claim is made that science is not value-free various things may be involved. There might be at least four points to consider. First, there is the thesis that the very practice of philosophy itself involves values --minimally, given a realist view of truth (which I hold and I think you do too, e.g. water is H20 if true if and only if water is H20)-- a commitment to discovering the truth about various phenomena, being reliable or trust-worthy in recording observations and constructing hypotheses, theories, reporting anomalies given such and such a theory, and so on. Perhaps this is not radical news, for it seems that virtually any social interaction in which we trust each others' reports / testimony, all sorts of values and commitments are relevant. But what might be added are three other points. Second, the practice of science itself is guided in light of what scientists (or those who support the practice of science)...

Is science held to a lesser standard of proof than religion for analytic

Is science held to a lesser standard of proof than religion for analytic philosophers?

Interesting question. To begin, matters of "proof" are rarely involved in analytical philosophy of religion. In fact, the days of when any philosopher claims to "prove" a thesis in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of science etc seem past. Philosophers for a while seem to settle on advancing good or cogent arguments (or plausible counter-arguments and counter-examples) rather than claiming to prove a point. Though there are some philosophers who do think they have proofs. Galen Strawson, for example, claims (wrongly, in my view) to have proven that no person is morally responsible for any of their acts.

Proofs to one side, it is interesting to wonder whether the evidential standards differ among analytic philosophers when they consider claims in science and claims in or about religion. Roger Trigg is an interesting philosopher who contend that science requires a philosophical foundation and that foundation invites or provides some evidence for theism. Richard Swinburne takes up and defends a similar position. In general, however, many philosophers today subscribe to the greater authority of the sciences (especially the natural or physical sciences) rather than the authority of religious teachings. For a balanced approach you might look at the two volume work Science and Religion in Dialogue edited by Melville Stewart (published by Wiley-Blackwell).

Interesting question. To begin, matters of "proof" are rarely involved in analytical philosophy of religion. In fact, the days of when any philosopher claims to "prove" a thesis in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of science etc seem past. Philosophers for a while seem to settle on advancing good or cogent arguments (or plausible counter-arguments and counter-examples) rather than claiming to prove a point. Though there are some philosophers who do think they have proofs. Galen Strawson, for example, claims (wrongly, in my view) to have proven that no person is morally responsible for any of their acts. Proofs to one side, it is interesting to wonder whether the evidential standards differ among analytic philosophers when they consider claims in science and claims in or about religion. Roger Trigg is an interesting philosopher who contend that science requires a philosophical foundation and that foundation invites or provides some evidence for theism. Richard Swinburne takes up and...

Woods cut from trees have certain physical properties that a reductionist might

Woods cut from trees have certain physical properties that a reductionist might claim are expressions of atomic or sub-atomic phenomena (mostly empty space, though we experience wood as hard). Since the tree is alive can reductionism account for the role of organic life in organizing or directing (e.g., cell division) those physical properties? I think that a physicist cannot fully explain the macroscopic properties of wood (e.g., hard) by material reduction without recourse to life sciences that are beyond his/her realm of study. What I am proposing is that reductionism fails via category error when applied to life or consciousness.

I think you raise a great point. This is an area that is much debated, so my response should not be considered the official philosophical position. I think the direction of your thinking is sound. If we are to limit ourselves to the world as described and explained in an ideal physics, there is quite a lot of reality that seems to go missing. Actually, the very practice of physics seems to involve a great deal of phenomena (scientists making observations, constructing theories, exercising reason, and so on) that may not fit in very well with the picture of nature produced by physics (or a philosophy that gives primacy or exclusive authority to physics). Anyway, back to your point, I think you are right that to address living creatures and plants requires the life sciences (minimally). And we will need more to describe and explain events such as you and I writing and reading, and so on (psychological descriptions and explanations...). Of special interest to some, perhaps many philosophers is whether might be "bridge laws" --laws of nature that link what we discover in physics with what we discover in biology. So, some philosophers hold that the most fundamental causal events at the micro-level are so configured that they can account for (or determine) the emergence of what we discover in chemistry, biology, and so on. The danger of a reductive project that would locate causes really at the micro-level and not permit what some call top-down causation (when, say, the hardness of a mature tree might causally explain why the tree is not the host of certain birds) is not itself a robust (or as solid, sorry for the pun) sample of causation. That sounds odd, so let me try one more time:

At the macro level, it appears that you and I do things such as plant trees for, say, ecological reasons. In a common sense way, it seems that such an activity would explain why lots of atomic and sub-atomic particles are shifted about in our world. The reason why all the physical constituents of our bodies moved from an urban area to the country was for reasons. However, if the underlying cause was atomic and sub-atomic, then we are in the odd position of realizing that no atoms or sub-atomic parts reason or have beliefs, desires, and so on. In other words, if our explanations gave primacy to physics, we seem to undermine what appears to be a solid, common sense way of understanding ourselves as agents.

I think you raise a great point. This is an area that is much debated, so my response should not be considered the official philosophical position. I think the direction of your thinking is sound. If we are to limit ourselves to the world as described and explained in an ideal physics, there is quite a lot of reality that seems to go missing. Actually, the very practice of physics seems to involve a great deal of phenomena (scientists making observations, constructing theories, exercising reason, and so on) that may not fit in very well with the picture of nature produced by physics (or a philosophy that gives primacy or exclusive authority to physics). Anyway, back to your point, I think you are right that to address living creatures and plants requires the life sciences (minimally). And we will need more to describe and explain events such as you and I writing and reading, and so on (psychological descriptions and explanations...). Of special interest to some, perhaps many philosophers is...

Do philosophers consider psychology to be a science? If not, do they think

Do philosophers consider psychology to be a science? If not, do they think philosophy should inform personal life values or psychiatric treatment?

Interesting question! The field of psychology emerged in the 19th and early 20th century as a science; at least the early self-described psychologists first described themselves as developing a science of the mind, and later changed this to the science of behavior. In any case, I suggest that whether psychology is a science, it is difficult to avoid philosophy when addressing one's personal life or engaged in psychiatric treatment. Presumably, one's personal life will include some kind of philosophy of values or some ideas about what is good and healthy, bad and ill, what is kind or cruel, and so on. Some of the therapeutic communities I know in which persons seek recovery from mental illness involve a philosophy of health, responsibility, and care (see for example, Spring Lake Ranch in Vermont). They do not employ a philosophy course from Plato to Nato, but much of the dialogue is about wellbeing, the value of community, and living a philosophy of mutual respect.

Interesting question! The field of psychology emerged in the 19th and early 20th century as a science; at least the early self-described psychologists first described themselves as developing a science of the mind, and later changed this to the science of behavior. In any case, I suggest that whether psychology is a science, it is difficult to avoid philosophy when addressing one's personal life or engaged in psychiatric treatment. Presumably, one's personal life will include some kind of philosophy of values or some ideas about what is good and healthy, bad and ill, what is kind or cruel, and so on. Some of the therapeutic communities I know in which persons seek recovery from mental illness involve a philosophy of health, responsibility, and care (see for example, Spring Lake Ranch in Vermont). They do not employ a philosophy course from Plato to Nato, but much of the dialogue is about wellbeing, the value of community, and living a philosophy of mutual respect.

I have a friend who is an Atheist because he claims that the burden of proof

I have a friend who is an Atheist because he claims that the burden of proof (for the existence of God/other practices and belief's) is on religion and he has not been satisfied with any proof set forth. He says, "if you propose the existence of something, you must follow the scientific method in your defense of its existence. Otherwise, I have no reason to listen to you." Should one believe in God or practice religion only if it can be proven by the scientific method? What do you think of his reasoning? Is it rational to believe in a God/Religion without the SM? Thanks and I'm a huge fan of the site!

It would be interesting to draw your friend out a bit more on what he means by the scientific method. Is he including non-behaviorist psychology, in which it is permissible to describe and explain people's subjective experiences, employing introspection? Does he include history? Or is his domain only the natural sciences? Even addressing these questions will, I believe, bring to light that your friend is operating on something that goes beyond the "scientific method"; he is employing a philosophy of science. Science alone (physics....) will not tell you that it is the only reliable basis of knowledge, and if a physicist says this, then she is being more than a physicists; she is a philosopher of physics or science. In any case, questions about ethics, religion, and meaning go beyond science (I suggest) and in fact science as a practice must presuppose some ethics (minimally one must be trustworthy / not falsify data, etc) in order to be practiced at all. Questions about whether or not there is a God or objective values, etc, seem to me to be the sorts of things that require a philosophical investigation, an assessment, for example, of why it is that there is a cosmos in which science is so successful. To make one further observation that I hope is helpful: these days, philosophers rarely speak in terms of "proofs." It is very difficult even to prove that radical skepticism is wrong (do I know that I am not in the Matrix? ). In most contexts, we refer instead to good or bad arguments. So, I am sympathetic with your friend it is good to discuss the reasons for and against theism but I suggest you do so, drawing on, but not limited to science alone. Good wishes to you both!

It would be interesting to draw your friend out a bit more on what he means by the scientific method. Is he including non-behaviorist psychology, in which it is permissible to describe and explain people's subjective experiences, employing introspection? Does he include history? Or is his domain only the natural sciences? Even addressing these questions will, I believe, bring to light that your friend is operating on something that goes beyond the "scientific method"; he is employing a philosophy of science. Science alone (physics....) will not tell you that it is the only reliable basis of knowledge, and if a physicist says this, then she is being more than a physicists; she is a philosopher of physics or science. In any case, questions about ethics, religion, and meaning go beyond science (I suggest) and in fact science as a practice must presuppose some ethics (minimally one must be trustworthy / not falsify data, etc) in order to be practiced at all. Questions about whether or not there is a...

Why does giving authority to a sense of aesthetics sometimes lead to finding the

Why does giving authority to a sense of aesthetics sometimes lead to finding the wrong answer to a scientific question?

Good question! First, it must be said that sometimes aesthetic considerations seem to be quite positive scientifically, at least according to books like The Elegant Univers by Brian Greene: "In physics, as in art, symmetry is a key part of aesthetics." In the International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Eligan has argued that "Aesthetic devices are integral to science." And there have been various claims about how Einstein, Pincare, Heisenberg, Weyl, have been led by aesthetic considerations. On that, check out Truth and Beauty by Chandrasekhar. When you look at what is meant by "aesthetics" in this literature it sometimes refers to symmetry, simplicity, harmony, order, consistency, economy, unity, elegance, beauty... I suppose one way to answer your question is that aesthetics can lead to bad science if the sense of the beauty of a theory is somehow misplaced or there is (what we might think of later as an ugly) ignoring of evidence for the sake of a simplicity that is inadequate to the task. There have been scientists and philosophers who seem drawn to what they see as the elegant simplicity of scientific behaviorism, and yet such simplicity is at the expense (or so I suggest) of the reality of first-person subjective experience.

Good question! First, it must be said that sometimes aesthetic considerations seem to be quite positive scientifically, at least according to books like The Elegant Univers by Brian Greene: "In physics, as in art, symmetry is a key part of aesthetics." In the International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Eligan has argued that "Aesthetic devices are integral to science." And there have been various claims about how Einstein, Pincare, Heisenberg, Weyl, have been led by aesthetic considerations. On that, check out Truth and Beauty by Chandrasekhar. When you look at what is meant by "aesthetics" in this literature it sometimes refers to symmetry, simplicity, harmony, order, consistency, economy, unity, elegance, beauty... I suppose one way to answer your question is that aesthetics can lead to bad science if the sense of the beauty of a theory is somehow misplaced or there is (what we might think of later as an ugly) ignoring of evidence for the sake of a simplicity that is inadequate to the task...

Is religion merely a primitive form of science?

Is religion merely a primitive form of science?

Great question! It may seem quite odd to equate religion and science because the former involves so much more than science. In religious communities and traditions one finds a whole way of life, a set of values and rites that seem to go well beyond the kind of inquiry that make up the natural and social sciences. Still, historically and today, religions do offer descriptions, explanations, and predictions about the cosmos and our place in it. Theistic traditions, for example, understand the cosmos itself to be created and conserved in being by an awesome, omnipresent, good, purposive reality. In today's terminology, however, I think it would be misleading and perhaps wrong to think of such a claim as a scientific one, but it would not be unscientific because there is (obviously) no evidence for such a worldview. The cosmological argument, for example, has some very able defenders today (see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for a good version) and that argument would seek to establish theism on the basis of the evident contingent nature of the cosmos. As a side point, some philosophers (most notably Alfred North Whitehead) have argued that modern science itself had religious (specifically theistic) roots. This is, of course, controversial but worth considering. You might find Whitehead's Religion in the Making of interest.

Great question! It may seem quite odd to equate religion and science because the former involves so much more than science. In religious communities and traditions one finds a whole way of life, a set of values and rites that seem to go well beyond the kind of inquiry that make up the natural and social sciences. Still, historically and today, religions do offer descriptions, explanations, and predictions about the cosmos and our place in it. Theistic traditions, for example, understand the cosmos itself to be created and conserved in being by an awesome, omnipresent, good, purposive reality. In today's terminology, however, I think it would be misleading and perhaps wrong to think of such a claim as a scientific one, but it would not be unscientific because there is (obviously) no evidence for such a worldview. The cosmological argument, for example, has some very able defenders today (see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for a good version) and that argument would seek to establish...

Science theorises by proposing ideal types and deducing ideal relationships

Science theorises by proposing ideal types and deducing ideal relationships between them. In nature there is no ideal sphere touching an ideal frictionless plane in an ideal single point. Instead of these ideals, nature gives us avalanches. Yet to study real avalanches the theory derived from the unreal ideal is required. Presumably, reality is too chaotic to theorise directly. Does all useful theory depend on ideal types? It does seem usual. Economics creates idealised relational theories from idealised constructs such as homo economicus, market clearing, perfect information and other things which do not and cannot exist in reality. Presumably, this idealisation approach is one reason for the relative success of economics compared with other social sciences. In the natural sciences measurement is also ideal. For example, a temperature noted as 23.59 degrees is not real: the reality will be plus or minus some small amount. The recorded value, like any exact number, is a mathematical...

Your question is excellent. Though I am afraid your proposal is not completely novel insofar as Plato initiated a philosophy of ideal forms in all areas of life (the good, the true, the beautiful, the just, and so on), though of course he was working long before we began carving up inquiry into the different natural and social sciences. At many points in the history of ideas, philosophers have worked with ideal or what has come to be called paradigm cases. So, in the theory of knowledge, a philosopher might describe an ideal or paradigm case of what it is to know some internal state (the feeling of pain) or see a remote object and then use that paradigm to assess different, more controversial knowledge-claims. So, one might entertain an ideal case of what it is to see a person, and then ask whether claims to see or perceive a sacred reality (God) in religious experience is similar or too remote to count as evidence. And in ethics we often use thought experiments to try to capture the different values that come into play with, for example, the duty to keep promises or refrain from killing and so on. So while there has been a healthy role for ideal or paradigm cases, there has also been a focus on all the messy details in non-ideal situations. To go with ethics again, the reason why philosophical disputes persist on abortion is not (in my view) because of disagreements on ideal cases, though there actually is disagreement on that level. But more often (I suggest) it is because we continue to wrestle with problems in philosophy of mind (when can we say with confidence that there is mental life..), reverence for life principles, and so on.

You may find the work of John Rawls interesting. He proposed two levels of reflection when carrying out political (and essentially ethical) theory. Balance your abstract reasoning with a study of concrete, case studies and work out your position in what he called reflective equilibrium.

Your question is excellent. Though I am afraid your proposal is not completely novel insofar as Plato initiated a philosophy of ideal forms in all areas of life (the good, the true, the beautiful, the just, and so on), though of course he was working long before we began carving up inquiry into the different natural and social sciences. At many points in the history of ideas, philosophers have worked with ideal or what has come to be called paradigm cases. So, in the theory of knowledge, a philosopher might describe an ideal or paradigm case of what it is to know some internal state (the feeling of pain) or see a remote object and then use that paradigm to assess different, more controversial knowledge-claims. So, one might entertain an ideal case of what it is to see a person, and then ask whether claims to see or perceive a sacred reality (God) in religious experience is similar or too remote to count as evidence. And in ethics we often use thought experiments to try to capture the different values...

I read an answer here that said a description says HOW something is while an

I read an answer here that said a description says HOW something is while an explanation entails WHY it is that way. If so then how do we determine when something has been explained (if it can be)? For example, I understand that when it rains the ground becomes wet. Why? I don't know the chemistry behind it but water is wet and covers the ground. But some could ask WHY is it wet and not something else to which many would respond "It just is". Is "It just is" the real explanation? Is the real explanation to everything "It is what it is", even though we may not know what IT is?

Very interesting! It is not easy in the abstract to form a sharp distinction between an explanation and a description. Presumably, every explanation involves some description (you are describing the cause of an event, for example), and any description of a thing could probably be used as part of an explanation (e.g. at a minimum, the description "I am reading AskPhilosophers" could be the answer to this request: "What are you doing right now?" and so on). What counts as an explanation may depend on the relevant inquiry. There are fairly restrictive accounts of what counts as a good explanation in the natural sciences (Hempel's nomological explanations) but then there are what Hempel called explanation sketches that are more loose. "It is wet" could be a sufficient explanation as to why you are not wearing a specific coat, though it would not get at why the coat got wet or why you prefer a dry coat. Your reference to "It is what it is" sort of explanation suggests a category of BASIC explanations, explanations that do not admit of further accounts or explanations. Perhaps the law of identity is basic in that sense. There seems nothing more fundamental than the notion that A is A or everything is what it is and not what it is not. Some philosophers think there are basic explanations in epistemology (the certitude in self-awareness) and in philosophical theology (the existence of God is not explainable in terms of any additional reality or law of nature; God's necessary existence is (according to theism) not further accountable).

Very interesting! It is not easy in the abstract to form a sharp distinction between an explanation and a description. Presumably, every explanation involves some description (you are describing the cause of an event, for example), and any description of a thing could probably be used as part of an explanation (e.g. at a minimum, the description "I am reading AskPhilosophers" could be the answer to this request: "What are you doing right now?" and so on). What counts as an explanation may depend on the relevant inquiry. There are fairly restrictive accounts of what counts as a good explanation in the natural sciences (Hempel's nomological explanations) but then there are what Hempel called explanation sketches that are more loose. "It is wet" could be a sufficient explanation as to why you are not wearing a specific coat, though it would not get at why the coat got wet or why you prefer a dry coat. Your reference to "It is what it is" sort of explanation suggests a category of BASIC explanations...