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The Dover trial exposed Intelligent Design "theory" as a front for Creationism.

The Dover trial exposed Intelligent Design "theory" as a front for Creationism. But the Argument from Design has been around since Descartes at least. Do philosophers consider the latter also a theory worth taking seriously or would they dismiss it like the Dover judge did ID? (I wouldn't say Descartes was fronting it for Catholicism because it was the only religion he knew.) It was an odd trial: the only witnesses called were scientists and all the ID scientists were also Christians. What do you think about this? Why were no philosophers called on to testify when they are so well-acquainted with such arguments?

One little historical point to begin with: Descartes didn't actually appeal to the Argument from Design at all. But you're certainly right that it has a long and venerable history behind it. It's the fifth of St Thomas Aquinas's 'Five Ways' of proving the existence of God; and, in some form or other, it goes a long way still further back than that.

Regarding the recent controversies (and perhaps explaining the 'oddness' of the trial), there are two issues that need to be distinguished. (i) Is it a good argument? (ii) Is it a scientific argument? The two questions are independent: both scientific debates and debates of other kinds (philosophical, theological, etc.) do get their fair share of both good arguments and bad arguments. We hope that, whatever the debate, the good arguments will win the day: but the bad ones deserve to be given a fair hearing too, so that what is bad about them might be exposed. Now, the recent controversies have centred around the question of whether or not ID is a scientific theory. If it is a scientific theory, then it would seem to merit some discussion within science classes in public schools: counterposed against alternative theories, perhaps, to facilitate a free and fair debate wherein the superior theory (whichever that might be) might vanquish the inferior. If it's not a scientific theory, then, whatever merits it may or may not have, science classes are simply not the place for it to be discussed.

I didn't follow the Dover trial in any great detail, but it did have strong echoes of an Arkansas trial in 1981, on an almost identical issue: whether 'Creation Science' (as it was then being called) should be taught in science classes in public schools. And, at that trial, philosophers actually were invited to testify. But these were not philosophers of religion, and they were not (as far as I know) asked to comment on whether they felt that the underlying argument was a good argument or a bad one. Rather, they were philosophers of science, and they were asked to comment on whether they felt that it qualified as a scientific argument at all, irrespective of whether it had any intrinsic merit. The witnesses maintained that it failed to live up to the criteria that define genuine scientific research -- it wasn't seeking universal laws of nature, it wasn't yielding explanations of known phenomena or predictions of unknown ones, it wasn't empirically testable, and its practitioners were overly dogmatic -- and the court agreed. As I understand it, this was also the question that the Dover court was asked to decide: not whether ID was a good theory, but whether it was a scientific theory. But the interesting thing about that 1981 trial (and, for all I know, maybe the Dover trial too) was that it launched a debate within the philosophy of science community. The trouble with philosophers of science is that they are decidedly prone to disagreements about what science is, let alone how its practitioners ought to operate. Some philosophers pointed out that many of the most central, paradigmatic cases that everyone would unhesitatingly regard as genuinely scientific theories would nevertheless fall short of the excessively rigid criteria for scientific status just listed above. There is no clear philosophical consensus about what makes a theory qualify as 'scientific'. Consequently, there is no clear philosophical consensus about whether or not the Argument from Design is a scientific argument.

Where philosophers are, I think, closer to consensus (although I'm sure there will still be dissenters here too) is on the question of whether or not the Argument from Design is a good argument. David Hume, in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (written in the 1750s, published 1779), argued that it was not; and his objections to it (which I'd invite you to follow up in detail, if you're interested in this sort of thing) are really rather powerful, and regarded as decisive by many philosophers nowadays. Hume showed (or purported to show) that little or nothing of religious doctrine can be rationally justified, through any arguments based on empirical evidence (or by a priori arguments either for that matter). Indeed, he argued that, if anything, the evidence would seem to tell directly against such doctrines. Admittedly, even outside this domain, Hume didn't think that very much else could be rationally justified either, and the running theme of his philosophical works was the thesis that our belief-system, right across the board, is not grounded in any philosophical arguments at all, but rather in our passionate impulses and habits. So he still left plenty of room for religious faith, as such, but merely wished to show that the Argument from Design could do nothing to underpin such faith. Most philosophers nowadays would, I think, agree with him on this.

Human beings have evolved similar physical attributes over time. Though there

Human beings have evolved similar physical attributes over time. Though there is some genetic variation among individuals, we share many traits. But isn't it also possible that, as a result of our common evolutionary heritage, we share similar emotional and moral traits as well? If we all have basically similar emotional machinery, why couldn't we appeal to the general constellation of desires that most of us share, and use them to construct a universal ethics? If the good is what makes us happy, and happiness is the fulfillment of various desires, and if humans have similar desires because we share evolved mental traits, then why couldn't an appeal to those traits in the search for moral agreement? Just as medical experts can give general advice about physical health because most humans share similar physical bodies, why can't psychologists and ethicists give general advice about morality based upon our shared mental traits?

We do have a lot in common psychologically, and all of that matters when we're trying to decide what's right and wrong. And the more we know about the psychological effects of how we treat people, the more information we'll have to feed into our ethical decisions. Psychologists have relevant things to say, as do doctors and, for that matter, economists, massage therapists, and various other specialists.

Whether or not knowing everything about what makes people happy would settle all ethical questions, however, is another matter. (Not sure if you were suggesting it would.) For example: suppose that there are things that would make me happy at your expense. Most of us don't think it's just a matter of comparing the sum of my potential pleasure to the sum of your potential pain. Questions about fairness, for example, will also matter, and psychologists have no special expertise in sorting out what's fair. (Neither do most philosophers, for that matter.)

There's also room to argue about whether the good really is just what makes us happy, and about whether happiness is a just a matter of satisfying various desires. And in fact, we've only scratched the surface. So while the sorts of things you point to are bound to matter for ethical matters, there will be plenty left over that knowing how people's psyches work won't tell us.

When parents take measures to select for beneficial genetic traits in their

When parents take measures to select for beneficial genetic traits in their children (e.g., by selecting MENSA members as sperm donors), who benefits? I take it that the intuition is that the children benefit. There's something weird about this idea, however. It's not as though we are conferring intelligence or good looks on a child who would otherwise be ordinary; rather, we're trying to ensure that the ordinary child never comes into existence in the first place.

Your last sentence is right: It's not true that in the case you have in mind the parents confer a benefit on child that would otherwise lack it. You're right also that it is a bit strange to suppose that children benefit from this. On the other hand, one might argue that this practice benefits society at large by increasing the overall representation of intelligence. (Whether increasing the overall level of intelligence in the population will benefit it, is an empirical question to which I doubt we have an answer.) Or one might hold that it benefits the parent or parents by increasing their chances of having high-achieving children. (Whether having smarter children in general makes parents happier is also an empirical question, and I also doubt that we know how to answer it at this point.)

You might enjoy pursuing these issues a bit further with Jonathan Glover's new book, _Choosing Children: Genes, Disability and Design_, forthcoming in early 2008 with Oxford University Press. Glover is an excellent writer and a very fine philosopher.

These days, you often hear about criminal trials in which genetic

These days, you often hear about criminal trials in which genetic predispositions to violence are invoked as factors mitigating moral culpability. Strictly speaking, though, isn't all our behavior -- good and bad -- dictated by an interaction of our genes and environment? If genes direct us in any case and at all times, does it really make sense to cite genetic determination in the instance of bad acts, as if these were exceptional cases?

You are quite right. There seems no good reason why genetic causes should absolve us from moral responsibility any more that other causes of our behaviour. This is a point that has often been made by Richard Dawkins. If there is a threat to free will and moral responsibility, it is determinism per se, not genetic determinism in particular.

Of course, there remains the question of whether determinism does undermine free will and moral responsibility. Compatibilists say no--they say you are free as long as your actions issue from your own conscious choices, even if those choices themselves are determined by your genes and environment. Incompatibilists say yes--if your actions are ultimately determined by causes beyond your control, then you aren't free, even if the determination proceeds via your conscious choices.

But, either way, genetic causes have no special status. Compatibilists will say that genetic causes, like other causes, don't undermine your freedom when they influence your behaviour by influencing your choices. And incompatibilists will say that non-genetic causes beyond your control, like your early upbringing, do undermine your freedom just as much as genetic causes.

I read that an artery is a blood vessel that carries blood away from the heart.

I read that an artery is a blood vessel that carries blood away from the heart. However, a dead body still has arteries, and they don't carry blood anywhere anymore. Moreover, there may be dead or non functioning arteries within a living body. A friend of mine suggests that an artery is a blood vessel that evolved to carry blood away from the heart, but a creationist wouldn't believe her, and I would prefer a definition of "artery" that could be accepted by anyone. Could you, philosophers, provide such a definition?

Your question relates directly to a central issue in the philosophy of biology, which is how to understand what it means to say that a biological trait has a particular function. The appeal to evolution by natural selection is attractive here because we often seem to explain why a trait is present by appeal to its function, and this practice would otherwise be strange, since functions are effects and we don’t normally take effects to explain their causes. Thus suppose we say ‘We have arteries because they carry blood away from the heart’. Carrying blood away from the heart is an effect of having arteries, so how can it explain why we have them? But in the context of natural selection, we can say that it is because arteries in our ancestors carried blood in the past that we are here now, arteries and all. So the functional explanation ‘We have arteries because they carry blood away from the heart’ is actually not an ‘effectal’ explanation, but a causal explanation. What explains and causes arteries today is blood getting carried in the past and the selection of creatures who could do that sort of thing.

Nevertheless, I take your point that when we simply characterise something in functional terms we do not seem to be committing ourselves to an evolutionary theory. People talked about functions and defined things in functional terms before Darwin. So maybe we can define arteries in terms of their function – carrying away blood – and understand function not in terms of natural selection but rather in terms of the characteristic contribution that arteries make the operation of the organism as a whole. It’s true a dead person still has arteries even though they are no longer carrying blood, but that’s because those tubes are similar to the ones that are doing their job in normal living individuals.

If you want to follow up the philosophy of biological function, a good anthology is Nature’s Purposes, edited by Colin Allen, Marc Bekoff, and George Lauder.

What purpose does one have to do anything to assist another human if it does not

What purpose does one have to do anything to assist another human if it does not directly benefit one? Our lives are short (sometimes), why should we even consider doing things which do not directly help ourselves? Why do we feel better about ourselves when we help others? Survival of the fittest says we should abandon everyone else to ensure our own survival and procreation. Why do we and animals alike have the need to ensure the survival of our species instead of ensuring the survival of ourselves or our immediate kin.

You seem to be raising a couple of puzzles here. One is how it has come about that human beings are sometimes motivated to help strangers, given that we might have expected evolution to produce beings concerned to promote the survival only of themselves and their kin. One immediate answer to this question is that, despite what some fanatical sociobiologists say, you can't explain everything about human behaviour as it is now merely by reference to our evolutionary history -- even if you allow in cultural as well as biological evolution. Evolution made it possible for impartial benevolence to develop, but it didn't necessitate it. Its emergence -- where it has emerged -- is to be understood primarily in terms of history rather than biology.

The second puzzle is why we *should* help others even when doing so doesn't benefit us. Many people have believed egoism -- the view that the only reason we have to do anything is grounded in the promotion of our own well-being. Philosophy has so far failed to provide a knock-down argument against egoism. But what it has clarified is some of its implications -- for example, that the fact that I can save you from years of agony by pushing some button gives me no reason to push that button.

What would you need to find (what sort of evidence) in order to disprove the

What would you need to find (what sort of evidence) in order to disprove the theory of evolution (or at least detract from it)?

The theory of evolution by natural selection is sometimes claimed to be an unfalsifiable theory, since it appears that no matter what fossil evidence we uncover, a 'just so' evolutionary story could be told to fit it. However, this simple-minded position seems to wrong. There does appear to be plenty of that evidence could tell against the theory if that evidence were discovered. For example, if the age of the earth were discovered to be much shorter than is required for evolution by natural selection to operate (say, a few thousand years), then that would be good reason to reject the theory. Fortunately, we have every reason to think that the earth is old enough for evolution by natural selection to have operated, and so no reason to reject the theory.

I studied languages, not philosophy, the reason being that I was afraid I would

I studied languages, not philosophy, the reason being that I was afraid I would have to study intensely old philosophers and this would influence my own thinking. This was very wise, I think, and now, thirty years on, I think I have developed my own view. Now I would like to see if there are others who think along the same lines. What I try to do is view myself and the rest of us the way humans look at other animals and see the similarities. I consider evolution to be the only driving force in life and therefore our self-consciousness and intelligence to be evolutionary assets like the claws of the tiger or the trunk of an elephant. Could you direct me to others who think along the same lines? Yours truly, Martin C.

Hi Martin. I'm not sure about your justification for not studying philosophy (the intention of which is to encourage thinking things through for yourself!), but you'll be glad to know that there are plenty of philosophers who think along similar lines to those that you mention. There are too many to list, but two prominent philosophers concerned about the kind of big picture that you mention are Daniel Dennett (Consciousness Explained, Darwin's Dangerous Idea) and Fred Dretske (Naturalising the Mind).

I would like to know why, after rigorous scientific training in objective

I would like to know why, after rigorous scientific training in objective observation and reflection, some scientists are very resistant to laying down their preconceptions. One area which springs to mind is the breath-taking complexity of life on earth. This points so clearly to a creator of some kind (hence the ID debate), yet many scientists dismiss this possibility a priori, regarding it as a childish myth. Why this unwillingness to be truly 'scientific' and examine the facts from several possible points of view, rather than one rather dogmatic one?

The answer to your first question about preconceptions is that scientists are human beings and so scientific practice is affected in many ways by human subjectivity. These effects include, but are not limited to, a human tendency towards dogmatisim. Scientific methods and training can limit the damaging effects of human dogmatism, but cannot eliminate them entirely.

The answer is your second quetsion about intelligent design is that there are substantive scientific reasons for rejecting this argument for God's existence. Ironically, your assumption that scientists' failure to accept this arguments can only be due to unscientific dogmatism may be based on your own wishful or dogmatic thinking -- it is a mistake to think that the best or even the typical scientific response to the argument from design is dismissing it as a childish myth.

Finally, my sense is that scientists and philosopers have explored and assessed this argument from mutliple perspectives, so I think the rational investigation you advocate at the end of your quesiton is underway.

There is increasing evidence that there is an evolved "moral grammar" in

There is increasing evidence that there is an evolved "moral grammar" in human brains (which in some respects resembles Kantian moral philosophy). My question is, is it possible to have an ethical system that is entirely rational and unreliant on "hardwired" beliefs? Obviously any moral theory that relies on evolution commits the naturalistic fallacy (what helps animals to survive and reproduce has no bearing on what is good and bad). Case in point is utilitarianism, trumpeted as an entirely secular and rational moral philosophy. But why would "anti-utilitarianism"--the ethical theory that prescribes the greatest pain for the greatest number--be, logically speaking, any less valid than utilitarianism? The assumption that pain is bad and pleasure is good appears to be "hardwired" and without rational basis. These questions leave me in some doubt about the viability of moral philosophy, since all moral theories seem to include premises that I have no reason to accept.

You pose one of the great challenges confronting philosophical ethics: explaining the rational basis of morality. If your last claim--that all moral theories include premises you have no reason to accept--is correct, then I don't see how the challenge can be met. A number of philosophers have rejected this claim, however. Kant, for example, suggested that morality is grounded by premises you are rationally bound to accept. According to Kant, simply being a free agent requires you to accept the rational force of certain imperatives, and these imperatives then provide the basis or foundation of your moral obligations.

Note that If Kant is correct, what grounds morality is not any biological fact about the ways in which our brains are hardwired. Rather, it is the metaphysical nature of rational agency that lies at the foundation of ethics. Consequently, any rational agent--human or otherwise--will be bound by the same obligations that bind you and me.

Of course, it is not at all clear whether Kant's strategy can succeed; and over the years, it has had many critics. Some have objected to Kant's claim that there are imperatives we are rationally bound to accept merely in virtue of being free agents. Others have wondered how we could possibly derive the obligations of morality from foundations that seem so bare and minimal. (And still others have just denied that we're free agents.) Nonetheless, I think that if there is to be any answer to your difficult question, it is going to be found by adopting at least a vaguely Kantian approach.

For one contemporary philosopher's more-than-vaguely Kantian approach, see David Velleman's "A Brief Introduction to Kantian Ethics" (available in this volume).