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To my understanding, organisms evolve in order to adapt to their environment and

To my understanding, organisms evolve in order to adapt to their environment and its pressures. If that is the case, how come we are conscious? It seems like consciousness is an unnecessary add-on. Why aren't we p-zombies? P-zombies can do the same thing any other organism can, right? Or is it possible that consciousness is an illusion?

Suppose there are two mutations that would allow a species of plant to gather more sunlight for energy, one that would make it grow taller than competing plants and another than would make it grow wider. The species happens to evolve to grow taller. It is true that it might have achieved the adaptive function of gathering more energy without growing taller (i.e., by growing wider instead). So, growing taller was not necessary (i.e., the only way) to achieve this function. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to say that the plant's height is causally irrelevant to its capacities to gather energy from sunlight.

Similarly, it might be that a species (call them p-zombies) might have evolved that could gather and synthesize information about various features of its environment just as well as us but without being phenomenally conscious. But the possibility of such a species tells us nothing about whether phenomenal consciousness in us (and other animals) plays a causal role in gathering and synthesizing information about our environment. Consciousness may have been selected for even if p-zombies are possible. Consciousness may be the particular way (among many possible ways) that our ancestral species solved the challenge of gathering and synthesizing information about the environment and using it to guide adaptive behavior.

If your p-zombies are physically identical to us in every way, then we might wonder why consciousness evolved. But this already assumes that consciousness plays no causal role, since that's the only way that a physical duplicate of us without consciousness could still behave just like us. Once we recognize this, the conceivability of p-zombies becomes much more dubious (at least to me). I have a hard time conceiving of conscious states as causally inert, in part because I assume conscious properties are essential properties of certain underlying neural states.

(Another possibility is that consciousness was not selected for but was a side-effect of some other adaptation, but this still allows that consciousness eventually took on important roles in our behavior.)

Hi, I'm wondering what is the purpose of moral philosophy assuming that our

Hi, I'm wondering what is the purpose of moral philosophy assuming that our moral intuitions are mere products of evolution. Evolutionary psychology seems to explain our moral roots (genes that coded for cooperation helped the organisms in which they resided reproduce and replicate those genes). Given this, our instincts that say we should behave in certain ways are merely adaptations that increased survival. It seems then that there is no objective answer to "What should I do?" and the entire field of normative ethics is premised on the delusion that there is. Wouldn't it be more honest for professors of moral philosophy to tell their students that they're merely looking for a consistent framework for decision-making that best coheres with our moral intuitions? And that outside of these intuitions (which arose because they increased survival), there is no warrant for believing in some absolute, metaphysical grounding of ethics--in other words an objective answer to the question "what SHOULD I do?" Thanks!

As happens often, also with professional philosophers, your word "then" marks the weakest spot in your argument. "Our instincts that say we should behave in certain ways are merely adaptations that increased survival. It seems then that there is no objective answer to 'What should I do?'."

How does the second sentence derive support from the first?

Our instincts may predispose us to get frightened by certain sights and sounds, and we may through evolutionary factors have become disposed to overestimate vertical distances and to underestimate horizontal distances over water. Does it follow that there is no objective answer to the question of whether those sights and sounds really are associated with danger -- no objective answer as to what these distances really are?

I think your worry comes about as follows. You believe that what really goes on in moral philosophy is that people are "looking for a consistent framework for decision-making that best coheres with our moral intuitions (which arose because they increased survival)." You then say -- quite reasonably -- that the successful construction of such a consistent framework cannot count as the discovery of objective morality.

Why not? Here you might give two answers. One answer says that what our instincts dispose us to do is often wrong (e.g. when young males feel strongly inclined to take advantage of a safe opportunity to rape a female). But this answer would seem to presuppose rather than deny that there is an objective morality. Moreover, the fact that this answer is widely shared among moral philosophers shows that they do not count whatever our instincts urge us to do as a moral intuition. Our instincts may urge us to save ourselves from a dangerous situation, which we caused by our own negligence, through an action that is likely to kill innocent bystanders. But our moral intuitions tell us that this would be quite wrong.

The other answer says that history might have gone differently and might then have produced different instincts and moral intuitions. But since there can only be one objective morality, the moral intuitions that emerged in this history we actually happened to have cannot be a good path to discovering what this objective morality is. This answer makes some sense but, to reach your conclusion, you need to overcome two further hurdles. First, why cannot the morality that best accords with our moral intuitions be objectively right for our world even while another morality would have been objectively right if a very different history had shaped our moral intuitions differently? Second, are moral intuitions really the only basis on which an objective account of morality can possibly be established?

A lot of people think we shouldn't conduct stem cell research or cloning based

A lot of people think we shouldn't conduct stem cell research or cloning based on the idea that man shouldn't 'play god.' My response; why not? Now, I'm an atheist, but even if we were to assume the bible were literal truth, why should we not try to emulate god if he is so perfect and wondrous? Is there any logic behind the playing god argument? What logic *can* be attributed to religion, at any rate...

I think you are right to discern that the "playing God" objection to stem cell research/cloning is not what it seems to be. Those who offer this objection seem quite comfortable with the idea of "playing God" in well proven medical interventions e.g. appendectomy for appendicitis, C-section for obstructed labor, chemotherapy for leukemia. Of course there are some people (Christian Scientists, for example) who forgo most medical care on religious grounds. But the vast majority of those who worry about "playing God" with stem cell research/cloning are happy consumers of the best that health care has to offer. The question is, why don't they extend that happy consumer attitude to stem cell research/cloning? I am not sure of the answer to this, but I think it may have to do with the uncertainty that currently exists around these new technologies (will they work? will they produce monsters of some kind?). So it may be a risk aversive attitude of the kind "leave it to God, we don't know enough to intervene in this area." It expresses caution about experimenting with human beings, and modesty about our technological abilities, which is appropriate (if not taken too far).

Of course for every person who says that we shouldn't "play God" there is usually another person who says "God helps those who help themselves." Religious language can be used on both sides of this debate.

Eugenics has a bit of a history for being unethical; between disputes over what

Eugenics has a bit of a history for being unethical; between disputes over what makes people 'better' and outright genocide of those that don't make the cut, this is quite understandable. However, what about other methods of eugenics? I've recently come across a movement, I can't vouch for size but I imagine rather small, called Transhumanism. It calls for the improvement of human physical and mental aptitudes and abilities with modern science and technology. Surely THIS isn't immoral, right? Unless patients were unwilling, procedures unduly risky, or improvements distributed unequally or based on race or income, surely the desire to improve the human race can't be construed as immoral, can it?

Your last sentence is correct, I think, with the exception of the word "improve," which I would replace with "modify" or "enhance." "Improvement" raises all the questions that critics of eugenics have raised about classifying human beings into better or worse.

By the way, we are already Transhumans, if you count glasses, sneakers, computers, etc. Perhaps the movement Transhumanism want the modifications integrated with our biology. But why would that be better?

Why doesn't knowledge of the obvious causal relationship between consciousness

Why doesn't knowledge of the obvious causal relationship between consciousness and brains destroy any ideas of an afterlife?

The fact that one thing causes another does not mean than the second could not exist without the first. Consider the case of a forest fire, for example. A carelessly flung match could be the cause, and yet (a) the fire could continue even after the match is destroyed, and (b) other things, such as a bolt of lightning, could substitute for the match as cause of the fire. Similarly, one could think (a) that brain activity causes consciousness, but consciousness can continue even after the brain is destroyed, or (b) that things other than brain activity, e.g. cosmic vibrations, could also cause consciousness. Without evidence to support these possibilities, they remain mere possibilities; but they do show why the causal relation you cite does not "destroy an ideas of an afterlife".

If you think that an individual's consciousness is not just caused by the activity of her brain but is identical with it, then that consciousness must indeed cease when the activity of that brain ceases. But many who agree that there is an "obvious" causal relationship between consciousness and the brain do not think that consciousness is identical with the brain.

Why is an amoeba considered alive, but a car is not? The car is as complicated

Why is an amoeba considered alive, but a car is not? The car is as complicated as the amoeba. It eats gasoline, and produces waste. It also has a reproductive system: by providing humans a useful service, cars have been able to use human factories as breeding grounds. When a car stops working, we say that it dies. Finally, if you look at cars through the decades, you can see that the primitive species of car (i.e. Model T) evolved into modern species (i.e. Prius). So why aren't cars alive?

As you suggest, there are a lot of analogies between cars and living things, and if you had used computer programs, there might have been even more. So, if we wish to say that amoeba and such are alive, whereas human artifacts are not, we need to find the relevant differences. There are at least three salient ones that seem relevant to picking out what counts as living (and the proper subject of biology):

1. What they do: Self-replication. All living things can replicate themselves. No artifacts can. Of course, it gets tricky when you consider things like computer viruses. Or future robots that might build robots like them. People also talk about other functions such as metabolism and self-regulation, but they might offer even less clear boundaries between living and non-living.

2. Where they came from: Evolution from a common ancestor. That is, the current (well-supported) theory is that all living things share a common ancestor. No artifacts evolved from living things.

3. What they are made of: Living things are made of organic material, and (related to points 1 and 2), all have RNA or DNA (the ancestral material that allows self-replication). No living things are made of these materials.

Having picked out these three criteria to distinguish living from non-living things, a good philosopher might ask, as you have, why these criteria are important. She might ask whether the complexity or functional properties shared by both a car and a horse or by both a sophisticated robot and a human are more interesting and important than the criteria above. But there is no obvious reason why the words "living" or "life" need to be used to pick out these interesting similarities, nor do these words prevent useful comparisons between living and non-living things.

The reason behind human appreciation of beauty is sometimes framed in

The reason behind human appreciation of beauty is sometimes framed in evolutionary terms; we find a certain body type beautiful because it reflects good health, or we find a blossoming fruit tree beautiful because it can provide us with food. It is impossible to explain modern appreciation for art in simple evolutionary terms because it has been so heavily culturally constructed, any explanation for the evolutionary mechanism behind the appreciation of a Roy Lichtenstein work would be a stretch. But the roots of our contemporary aesthetic sensibilities are in this appreciation for natural beauty, which in turn was grounded in non-aesthetic value. But it seems to me like there are so many natural things that we find beautiful that would serve no purpose, or would actually be dangerous. The Sahara desert, poisonous plants or insects, or storms are certainly considered beautiful, but an early human would be ill-advised to seek them out for this reason. Are there other theories as to the origin of our...

It's very easy to speculate about the evolutionary origins of a trait, but often very difficult to defend such speculations with evidence. Natural selection is not the only engine of evolutionary change. So there's no particular reason to think that our capacity for aesthetic pleasure is an adaptation, rather than, say, a by-product of some other trait that is an adaptation, or a "spandrel" -- a feature that is the result of physical constraints on the structure or sub-structure of the organism. (Remember that in order for there to be natural selection, there has to be variation. If there's only one way that natural law permits a cognitive or affective structure to develop, then everyone would be the same.) There are also stochastic processes to consider: genetic drift, or founder effects (some desert-landscape lovers went and settled on an island, while all the desert-landscape haters suffered catastrophe on the mainland.) It's very difficult to figure out what kind of evidence or reasoning could really support one of the possible explanations over another, when we're talking about traits that may have evolved over 100,000 years ago without leaving any tangible signs of themselves.

Finally, in order to sensibly investigate the evolutionary history of a trait, you need a clear characterization of the trait. When we talk about "aesthetic appreciation" are we talking about the capacity to discern an aesthetic dimension at all? Or are we talking about the content of particular aesthetic judgments? The latter are so historically and interpersonally variable that I see no reason at all to think that they are adaptations. As for the former, I see no reason to think that our sensibilities are, as you put it, "grounded in non-aesthetic value." As you yourself note, there is no readily apparent correlation between things many of us find beautiful, and things that are useful in keeping ourselves alive.

All that said, you might want to look at Paul Rozin's work on the emotion of disgust (Psychology, University of Pennsylvania), and its relation to some human food preferences and aesthetic judgments. It's great stuff.

Do you think that it is morally wrong to store the DNA of innocent people on a

Do you think that it is morally wrong to store the DNA of innocent people on a central database? Living in Scotland, the law says that people who have been charged of a 'violent or sexual offence' can have their DNA stored in a database for 3 years (with the possibility of extending that to 5). This isn't the DNA of people who have been convicted, but the DNA of people who have been charged and subsequently released (essentially innocent in respect to the law). In discussions with friends, I often come across the argument as follows: 'if you haven't done anything wrong, then you don't have anything to worry about'; at which point I often reply: 'if I haven't done anything wrong, then you have no need to hold my DNA'. Do you feel that a government has a duty to hold the DNA of 'potential' criminals like this in order to benefit society at large?

I'm with you. There is a security interest in having as complete as possible a database of DNA, but there is a contrary interest in privacy that I believe trumps the security interest. One reason for this is that, alas, your friends are simply wrong to think that simply because one is innocent one has nothing to fear from the government. Innocent people are convicted perhaps more often than your friends think. I recommend a book called Actual Innocence, which along with the Innocence Project explores how false convictions occur. One way they seem to occur is through the misuse of biological evidence. Or Google "Fred Zain" and "Ralph Erdmann" to learn more about the laboratory misconduct. The case of the Guilford Four in Britain is instructive, too. Sadly, the most prudent course and the course that best protects innocent people is not to allow the state access to the DNA of people charged but found to be innocent. This will, of course, in some cases diminish people's security; but the increase in security in the form of protection from the state's abuses compensates for that loss.

Where moral codes come from? Are they something to aquire or are they inherently

Where moral codes come from? Are they something to aquire or are they inherently in our genes?

Both. General capacities and inclinations for thought, feeling, and conduct are biologically based (not just in our genes but in virtually all our tissues). But the specific way those capacities and inclinations are conceptualized and formulated in principle, narrative, argument, and prohibition shapes, limits, and cultivates them--often in different ways by different people and societies.

Richard Dawkins wrote in his “The Selfish Gene,” that people are essentially

Richard Dawkins wrote in his “The Selfish Gene,” that people are essentially biological robots. If he is right then all of our thoughts are simply the result of cerebral and neurological processes. Electrochemical signals produced by entirely physical processes. So, assuming he’s correct, then what reason do we have to trust our thoughts and logic? Perhaps what we think is universally true is not, we’re simply programmed to –think- it is? Actually, that’d be a profoundly effective evolutionary tool for preservation of the species. Our emotional values and logic may have developed as a way to augment survival instincts beyond the level of less cognitive organisms, right? So, why trust our thoughts? How do we know our logic is truly logical and not simply an illusion of logic?

There is a number of issues raised here. Let me make just two points.

First, on the specific idea that "perhaps what we think is universally true is not, we’resimply programmed to think it is? ... that’d be a profoundlyeffective evolutionary tool for preservation of the species." But of course, if we were programmed to believe falsehoods, that would not in general promote survival. To get food, for example, we basically need true beliefs about where it is to be found.

Of course, this isn't to say that we need always get things right: it might be that evolution has provided us with quick-and-dirty information processing capacities that deliver true beliefs often enough to promote survival. But the point remains that what promotes survival is a sufficient number of true beliefs. So the thought that our beliefs are generated by mechanisms provided by our evolutionary history cannot by itself be a reason for across-the-board distrust.

Secondly and more generally, why should we suppose that our thoughts being the result of "physical processes" somehow makes them unreliable? I want my beliefs about what's around me to be generated e.g. via physical processes triggered by light hitting my retinas, etc., rather than to float causally free from my physical environment. Don't you?