Advanced Search

Suppose that a neuroscientist is studying love, and she discovers that romantic

Suppose that a neuroscientist is studying love, and she discovers that romantic infatuation is caused by high serotonin levels, while attachment is caused by oxytocin. Has she actually learned anything about love? More generally, what is the significance of discovering neural or hormonal correlates to particular human emotions or behavior?

An interesting question. Of course, our neuroscientist has learnt something about love, for she has learnt something about the neural causes of certain feelings bound up with love. But you might well feel that there is a sense in which her discoveries don't help us understand what really matters about love as part of human life (hasn't in the important sense learnt about the nature of love). That needs a quite different sort of enquiry, pursued by poets and playwrights and novelists down the ages. Compare: someone who tells us about the chemical composition of the pigments used in Botticelli's Primavera has told us something about the painting. But again such discoveries don't help us understand the painting in the way that matters, as a work of art, as part of the human world: understanding that requires something quite different from chemistry.

We could stop there. But perhaps there is a bit more that needs to be said. For there can remain a nagging feeling that the neuroscientist has in some sense diminished love, shown that it is "just chemistry". Yet is that right? Must finding out about various causes and correlates of mental states in some sense undermine them, unmask them as not what we thought them to be? Well, let's consider various other cases before turning back to love.

Start with beliefs. What causes me to believe that there's a computer screen in front of me right now? No doubt there is a long and complicated physical story to be told -- light emitted by the screen, affecting my eyes, rods and cones in the retina doing their stuff, signals going up the optic nerve, etc. etc. All very interesting -- and of course not at all worrying! To be told that such a belief is produced by a lot of causal processes of that kind doesn't in any way undermine the belief. On the contrary: I postively want my perceptual beliefs about the world to be caused by the appropriate functioning of my sensory apparatus as reliable generators of true beliefs.

But other beliefs might be caused in less desirable ways. Jack's religious beliefs, say, may be causally grounded in stories prevalent in the community he was brought up in, and be causally sustained e.g. by the emotional comfort they bring him in bonding him to that community. And when he comes to realize that, then this fact might indeed be worrying: for he might well think, on reflection, that those kinds of causal processes aren't particularly liable to produce true beliefs (given that the same sort of processes functioning in other religious communities produce quite different beliefs). In this case, the causal explanation might well be regarded us "unmasking" the belief, revealing it to be not in good order.

What about desires? Why do I desire chocolate, say. One account has it that there are chemicals in chocolate that in a mild way act rather like THC (the active ingredient of cannabis). Interesting if true. No wonder I like chocolate! And coming to believe this account which explains my desire doesn't do anything to diminish my desire, or unmask it as inappropriate.

With other desires, however, it can be different. Coming to recognize the cause of a desire can diminish it. If it dawns on me that I want SuperDuperExpensive Corn Flakes rather than ValueOwnBrand Flakes, not because they are better, but only because I've been manipulated by clever advertising, then my preferences have been "unmasked" and may well change as a consequence.

So like the belief case, coming to discover the causes of desires can leave them in place in certain cases, but might be undermining in other cases.

And now what about romantic love? If Mercutio whispers in Romeo's ear, "It's the serotonin, old chap", will that change his feelings for Juliet? Has his love been rudely unmasked, e.g. as just a desire for cheap chemical thrills?

I don't suppose Romeo is much in the mood to be distracted by such thoughts. But, waiting for Juliet's household to get to bed so he can climb up to her balcony, he might reflect how interesting the chemistry of love must be (and one day, when he has less pressing business to attend to, he must learn more about it). He also recalls his school-room reading of Book One of Plato's Republic, and the old man Cephalus calming accepting that "the pleasures of youth and love are fled away". But Romeo is only too glad that he is young, his chemical systems are bursting with vim and vigour, and his brain still gets awash with serotonin at the sight of a pretty girl. He is very happy, so to speak, to go with the chemical flow. So Romeo's feelings for Juliet aren't changed in the slightest by reflecting on their neural causes any more than my belief that there is a screen in front of me and my desire for chocolate are changed by reflecting on their causes. And he'll think that the fact that his feelings have a "chemical composition" no more shows that they are just chemistry (in any important sense) than our scientist showed that Primavera is just a load of old chemicals! His feelings have a role and place in his life that he values, and it is that which matters about them.

I'm with Romeo on this.

I'm passionately interested in Darwin and evolution, but have been bashing my

I'm passionately interested in Darwin and evolution, but have been bashing my head against the wall recently, over the objection that 'survival of the fittest' is a tautology. The answers to this that I've read state that 'fitness' doesn't mean: "those that survive, but those that could be expected to survive because of their adaptations and functional efficiency" []. But then the reply to this seems to be: "This charge is not repelled by substituting "most adaptable" or "best designed," etc., for "fittest," because these too are determined by survival. (That is, how do we determine that a species, or members of a species, is "most adaptable" or "best designed"? By the fact that it survived.)" [] As an aside following on from this, I know that you can then say that there is a lot of evidence. But isn't this evidence for evolution, not the specific theory of natural selection? My question is:...

My understanding of the supposed tautology to which you refer isthis:

  1. In the theory of evolution, only the most fit organisms survive.

  2. But the fitness of an organism can only be determined by the fact that it survived.

  3. So, we conclude: 'In the theory of evolution, only those that survive survive'

The statement in (3) is indeed quitemeaningless. If this were indeed the basis of evolution, then itwould have no predictive power, and fail a key test of beingscientific. Because the primary object that evolution seeks tounderstand is the past through the fossil record (and similarevidence), and it is successful species that leave such traces, it isindeed the case the palaeontologists have to work backwards fromsurvival to fitness.

There are several problems with theabove reasoning, however. First, 'fitness' is not an attribute of anorganism or of its genes. Rather, it is a relation of the heritablecharacteristics of an organism to its environment (including otherorganisms and also things like climate) insofar as this affectslikely reproductive success. That it is relational creates problemsfor science, to be sure, since environments are enormously complex.But it does allow at least statistical predictions to be made, whichcan be tested. So, for example, the the various lists of endangeredspecies are predictions concerns which species have declined infitness. But these predictions are not entirely based uponextrapolations forward of a mere decline in numbers over recentyears. Rather, at least some are based upon an evaluation of thelikely impact of a changed environment (e.g. loss of habitat, climatechange, pollutants, invasive species, etc.) upon an organism'sreproductive prospects. Likewise, the concept of an 'evolutionaryarms race' permits naturalists to predict where examples ofreciprocal adaptation to new environments may have taken place, andthus test their hypotheses. Finally, consider the following: thefossil record indicates a mass-extinction event 65 million years ago;that is, on a global scale the fitness of most then-extant speciesdeclined rapidly. Only some world-wide change in the environmentcould account for this. This led scientists to hypothesise that anasteroid impact had been responsible. So, research projects wereembarked upon to provide evidence for or against this hypothesis.Globally increased concentrations of iridium at the boundary layerand an impact crater of the correct size and date in Yucatan werediscovered. Although still controversial, this impact theory is adramatic example of the predictive power of the concept of fitness.

Second, survival of the fittest is byno means a complete picture. We also need to add in the idea ofadaptation. By adaptation is meant that, by some process (e.g.mutation), new heritable traits emerge which increase or decreasefitness. This gives the whole account extra explanatory power,because it allows the fossil record to be organised according to thegradual descent of species. Likewise, it makes predictions, such aswhere in the descent 'missing links' are likely to be found (andoften are) by future fossil hunters.

The above observations seem to show in various ways that 'fitness' does not simply mean 'did in fact survive', but rather carries both explanatory and predictive power, which is what the original objection hoped to discredit.

Complex language would seem to be beneficial to the survival of other species,

Complex language would seem to be beneficial to the survival of other species, so why are humans the only species with this trait?

Because it didn't evolve in any other species.

That wasn't very helpful. More to the point, it may not even be true. For all we can say for sure, other hominid species (perhaps Neanderthal?) had language, but didn't survive. In any case, the question of just why a particular trait did or didn't show up more than once in evolutionary history may not have any clear or uniform answer.

The philosophical issue here, I suppose, might be whether the fact (if it is one) that as useful a trait as language only appeared in one species makes some sort of difficulty for the theory of evolution. Someone might claim: if the evolutionary picture really is correct, we would expect to see many species with this trait. Being neither a biologist nor a philosopher of biology, I can't say for sure. But I'm strongly inclined to suspect that this just isn't a good reading of evolutionary theory. Given the complexity of language-capable brains, what might be surprising is that the ability appeared even once. But it could also be that in a few eons, there will have been many species that developed some sort of linguistic capacity. Language has probably been around for a rather short amount of time from the evolutionary perspective. It's not clear why we would expect a relatively new biological trait to be more widely distributed than it is.

Is human cloning immoral? Or can it help more society rather than do it harm?

Is human cloning immoral? Or can it help more society rather than do it harm?

It's hard to give an all-purpose answer. But notice: the way you've posed the problem suggests that if cloning does more harm than good, it would be morally acceptable. People who think right and wrong are a matter of consequences would agree; people with a different way of thinking about right and wrong might not. Someone might argue, for instance, that trying to make copies of people shows a fundamental lack of respect for the humanity of the beings who result -- doesn't treat them as "ends in themselves." I'm not sure that would be a convincing argument, but it's easy to imagine it being made.

As to whether cloning people might have net benefits, the answer surely is that it would depend on a lot of other things, which is one reason why it's hard to give a blanket answer to your question.

Research in anthropology and related disciplines reveals that there is no strong

Research in anthropology and related disciplines reveals that there is no strong evidence of any universal morals; there are no set of moral beliefs that are found uniformly across all existing countries or cultures. This has often been interpreted to mean that morality is unrelated to the existence of a deity. Some, however, believe that while the lack of universal morals is true it does seem that there is a universal sense of “oughtness”, or a universal tendency to justify what we do, or to place value judgments like “right” and “wrong” on behavior. From a philosophical perspective is this universal tendency toward morality better explained by a need to “get along” to increase fitness in our world (roughly a sociobiological explanation of morality), or is it perhaps better explained by our possessing an intrinsically moral nature, i.e. one that may exist because of the existence of a deity or deities (or even because life may continue after physical death without the existence of a deity). Sociobiology,...

About universal morality: while it's true that among cultures (as among individuals within any culture) there are variation in moral beliefs (as well as scientific beliefs), there are general (nearly universal, so far as I can tell) moral categories. One finds incest regulations, for example, in every society (though the boundaries of those prohibitions vary). Rules concerning possession, killing, and even, arguably, the sacred are more or less universal. I would be pretty reluctant to walk into any human society and start taking bites out of people's children. Moral beliefs and conduct do exhibit variation, but variation by itself doesn't disprove the existence of universal commonalities. Any pharmacist will tell you that different people respond to different drugs differently, but that doesn't refute the universal laws of chemistry.

Human moral life, then, exhibits both remarkable variation and remarkable commonality. As you say, there are various possible explanations for this. Philosophically, however, I think more naturalistic explanations (biological, sociological, etc.) preferable simply because they depend upon empirical and conceptual matters in a way that's likely to produce more agreement than religious explanations. Note that the existence of moral universals would not prove the existence of a deity any more than the existence of moral variation disprove deities' existence. And that's just the problem with matters divine. The deity's existence or non-existence is consistent with any empirical data. So far as human explanations go, then, it's better to stick to those for which conclusions can be reached on the basis of more or less objectively determinable observations and reasons.

How can life be defined? What is the borderline between life and no life? Are

How can life be defined? What is the borderline between life and no life? Are virus alive? In human beings life starts in the conception? A person in coma or with cerebral palsy is alive? What would be the conditions for a robot to be considered as something alive? Sorry for my english.

Ah, but how can proper English be defined? Like life, there is, I'm afraid, no absolutely precise definition. The boundary is likely to move when considering different contexts (e.g. medical, legal, taxonomic, robotic, spiritual); and even in many of these contexts the boundary is likely to remain vague, or at least provisional. One is likely to feel that there simply must be a clean and formulable line between what's alive and not alive. But my sense of things is that this just isn't the case. In any event, from where I sit, you're both alive and good writer in English.

Is all behaviour learned?

Is all behaviour learned?

If you include reflex responses such as blinking one's eyes upon the approach of a fast-moving object, then the answer is clearly 'no' -- not all behavior is learned; some behavior occurs regardless of any learning.

There are many sort of behavior that combine what is given and what is learned -- certain ways of walking or waving, for example

There are also behaviors that are too original to rightly describe as learned. A dancer may execute a movement that has never been seen before, or a singer may make a sound that has never been heard before.

We are a Muslim couple and it's now 5 years and we don't have childrens. Doctors

We are a Muslim couple and it's now 5 years and we don't have childrens. Doctors said that my wife is not having eggs to produce although she is only 32 years old. There is only way to take the eggs from another lady. Please tell me that is it ok or it will be a sin. The answer from the doctors is the final that she will never be able to produce her own eggs so this is the only option for ivf..... Please help me. Rashid

Whether and how to have a child is one of the most intimate and personal matters of life, whatever one's religion. So, ultimately you must make the decision as to what is most fitting for you. I cannot write as a Muslim or as one expert in Muslim theology. As a philosopher, however, I can say that I find nothing objectionable per se in the practice of using ova from a third party in order to generate a baby to which your wife can give birth, that can carry your genetic codes, and that the two of you can raise. I would offer this cautionary note, however. Sometimes the costs of such procedures can be terribly high. That being the case, one ought to consider whether in an (a) already over populated world, where (b) many children stand in need of adoption, and (c ) where many other problems demand attention it is proper to expend so many resources to bring a single child into existence. Conceiving, birthing, and raising a child using a third-party donor may be the best option for you. But do consider that there are many good lives, and not all of them include having children.

Is there any credence to the idea that acting morally works in evolutionary

Is there any credence to the idea that acting morally works in evolutionary terms, i.e., that it helps preserve the unity and survival of a co-dependent group? If this is the case, surely talk of absolute morality derived from religious scriptures is worthless, and our morality is just a refined survival technique. Thanks for a great site!

It may well be that there's an evolutionary story to be told about how we come to adopt moral codes and so on. But your question, as I'm reading it, is whether this undermines the objectivity of morality -- leads to the conclusion that our moral views are neither correct nor incorrect, or something like that. In fact, the two issues seem quite distinct. Compare: No doubt our ability to sort things by shape evolved and helps us survive. But that doesn't mean things don't really have shapes, nor that our beliefs about shapes are somehow flawed or empty or merely a "refined survival technique."

There's a third strand to be separated out here. If there is such a thing as objective morality, what makes it objective isn't the fact that it's to be found in some scripture or other. On the one hand, none of us needs scripture to be convinced that wanton cruelty is wrong. And on the other hand, some things called for in some scriptures don't seem right on reflection at all.

To sum up, what evolution brought about, whether there's such a thing as objective morality and whether moral claims found in scripture have any special status are three separate issues. The first philosophical step is to see that we can tease them apart.

Hope that helps!

I think apples are great. Why is it that they fit into my hand so easily? I don

I think apples are great. Why is it that they fit into my hand so easily? I don't even need to climb a tree to get one as they eventually fall to the ground (by the way I work in the building trade and I also think trees are great, timber is just sooo useful). Take a biro - I know some guy somewhere designed it and then made it and it works perfectly. I just can't help thinking that with an open mind I would be foolish not to think that a lot of nature's produce is far too perfectly designed to be a coincidence -- am I being naive?

Thank you for your question. I'm smitten by things like apples and trees also. However, implicit in your remark may be a thought about which I'm doubtful: It's the thought that if things like apples can't come into being by pure coincidence, there must be some divine cause to these things. I can't be sure whether this is what you have in mind, based on your question, but if it is what you're aiming at, I'd suggest the following: The theory of Evolution by Natural Selection does not try to explain biological phenomena in nature by appeal to nothing more than sheer coincidence. Rather, apparent design and complexity in nature are in general due to differential rates at which different organisms are able to pass along their genes, and that's not a chance process. (This point is eloquently spelled out in Dawkin's book, _Climbing Mount Improbable_.)

Also, I should point out that there lots of biological entities that are not convenient for human beings at all: weeds, poison ivy, noxious fruit that can cause paralysis, and the like are
not convenient for us at all. We tend to ignore these things when in search of things that are useful to us, but when we forget about all the things that aren't, can can end up with an imbalanced view of our relation to the rest of the biological world.