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If reproducing is our "ultimate goal" in life, is it possible that evolution

If reproducing is our "ultimate goal" in life, is it possible that evolution made an "error" of some kind by allowing us to think? Biologists say that evolution happens to allow a species to thrive more than it previously did, and that evolution experiments with combinations of properties that species have. Is it possible for evolution to undo our ability to think? Could you say according to this theory that instead of the human species being smarter it has actualy masked itself from its ultimate goal by being able to ponder the question "why?". These days, some people have no plans of creating offspring because they can choose whether or not they want to have children, and I believe choice is a product of thought. Is this theory plausible?

Yes, the theory of natural selection implies that a trait is more likely to spread insofar as (roughly speaking) the creatures possessing it are better at producing greater numbers of fertile offspring. But this does not mean that the "ultimate goal" of a creature is to reproduce. To speak of a creature as having such a goal suggests that the creature has this goal consciously in mind, and also that the creature's value or worth is to be judged (at least in part) by how well it achieves this goal. Evolutionary theory says no such thing. (Perhaps you realize this, and that's why you put the word "error" in scare-quotes in your question.)

Furthermore, even setting this point aside, our ability to think surely contributes greatly to our evolutionary fitness. Of course, it also allows people to choose not to reproduce, as well as to create technology that might (with careless application) sometime lead to the demise of the human species. But it seems to me that overall, being able to think contributes to our fitness rather than diminishes from it. Human beings who are severely mentally deficient are, in a purely evolutionary sense, less fit. (Note well my warning above not to confuse evolutionary fitness with value or worth.) Surely, our capacity to think arose partly because it enhances our fitness -- even if not everything that we do, just because we can think, enhances our fitness. (The production of great works of art may not enhance our fitness, for instance.)

It would be unbearable to live a life believing that things like beauty, love,

It would be unbearable to live a life believing that things like beauty, love, knowledge and life don't matter, and any philosophy that claimed it would be completely alien to me. At the same time, looking at altruism in animals and evolution of social behaviour makes it pretty obvious that our instincts and culture for good evolved for practical survival reasons. Surely it is a bit of a stretch to suppose that by fluke we evolved the beliefs and values that precisely match what is really good and really matters? I'm sure this is a pretty standard question that lots of philosophers have asked, so what kind of answers are there, and how can we decide what is really good or ethical?

Does it have to be a fluke that we have evolved in the way you describe? Our perceptual and conceptual apparatuses have evolved such that our perceptual beliefs largely match what is "really out there," and so why should it be a surprise (or a fluke) that our ethical beliefs match what is really good? The point of this question is merely to point out that the fact that we have evolved to think a certain way is not by itself a good reason to reject that way of thinking.

That said, your concluding question is a challenging one. How can we decide what is really good or ethical? This question can seem particularly vexing if we think that the laws of morality or the "rules of life" must somehow be "out there" in the world, waiting like the laws of physics to be discovered and understood. But philosophers have long questioned whether values must be "external" in this way in order to be genuine or real. Perhaps our judgments about what matters--about what is valuable or moral or rational--are not really attempts to describe the world at all. Perhaps, as Allan Gibbard has argued, they are just expressions of the norms and principles we accept. If so, then there is nothing particularly problematic about saying that beauty, love, knowledge, and life really matter. You might find Gibbard's book Wise Choices, Apt Feelings interesting, especially since one of his projects there is to explain--in part by appealing to various strands of evolutionary theory--how and why intelligent, self-aware, and social creatures such as ourselves would develop the very notion of something mattering.

Christine Korsgaard, a prominent defender of Kant's ethics, is another philosopher who denies that values (and moral values in particular) must be "out there" in the world in order to be genuine. In The Sources of Normativity, Korsgaard argues at length that we do not discover the laws of morality. Rather, we construct these laws by asking and answering practical questions. Crucially, for Korsgaard, the fact that we are authors of the laws of morality does not in any way make these laws less real or authoritative. In fact, she contends, it's hard to understand how laws that are just out there in the world (like the laws of physics) could have the right sort of authority at all.

Of course these are just two of the many different philosophical approaches to the problem you raise.

What is a function (of an object or an idea)? I once read that functions are

What is a function (of an object or an idea)? I once read that functions are conventional or "artificial". I can understand that an ashtray has its function (being a place to put cigarette ash) only if we assign it to it, but the function of our hearts (to pump blood) seems quite more natural.

Some objects simply aquire a function in virtue of being used in a certain way, like the rock I use to prop open my office door. But traits of biological organisms do seem to have natural functions, like the white fur of the polar bear, whose function is camoflage. There is a spirited discussion among philosophers of biology over just how to analyse biological functions, but the selected effects account is perhaps the most popular. On this view, an effect of a biological trait is a function if the trait was selected for by natural selection because of that effect. Thus camoflage is a function of white fur because it is in virtue of that effect that polar bears came to have white fur. Notice that not all effects of biological traits qualify as functions on this account. The heart pumps blood, and that is presumably an effect that was selected for and so counts as a function. But the heart also produces that adorable lub-dub sound; that is just as much an effect of the heart, but presumably not the reason we have hearts, and so not a function of the heart.

I was reading up on the study of whether biologists who accept the evolutionary

I was reading up on the study of whether biologists who accept the evolutionary theory believe in God(s) and other theologistic happenings. Many of them say that they find no conflict between the two whatsoever. How is this possible? Isn't the theory of evolution itself based on random, natural selection?

If I can add a little, I guess I find myself puzzled about why anyone would think there was a conflict between belief in God and evolutionary theory. Some Christians, Jews, and Muslims (and, perhaps, adherents of other faiths about which I know less) do find there to be a conflict, but that is because they read their scriptures in a very literal way and take it as a matter of revealed truth that the universe and its inhabitants were created in a particular way. Then, indeed, there is a conflict, and the issue becomes how one should read scripture. This sort of very literal approach is, in Judaism and Christianity, actually a fairly recent phenomenon, and it does not fit at all with how the authors of the relevant texts understood their own writing. There are, for example, two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis, which have quite different histories, and they contradict one another at several points. That fact does not seem to have troubled the compliers of the book, and there is no reason it need have done so, if they did not themselves consider the book literal history.

So there is that issue. But suppose we do not read the scriptures that way. Why then should there be any conflict between belief in God and evolution? I don't understand the alleged significance of the claim that evolution is "random". In any event, it's not, but is presumably governed by natural laws, whose character biologists seek to uncover.

I've recently been following the debate between proponents of evolutionary

I've recently been following the debate between proponents of evolutionary theory and those of intelligent design. It seems to me that the crux of their disagreement is around the existence of chance. Both parties seem (more or less) to agree on the mechanism (incremental development of species over time through selection of beneficial traits); but evolutionary theory states that these changes are random, the product of chance uninfluenced by God, while ID seems to think that God directs what we think of as chance, in effect denying the existence of randomness. But the question arises: if God doesn't influence chance, if true randomness occurs in nature, then what *does* God influence? Can a belief in evolutionary theory, or any theory that relies on chance occurrence, be compatible with a belief in God?

If irreducibly chancy processes occur in nature, God could be responsible for setting up laws of nature that specify those chances.

Here is what I mean. Even irreducibly chancy processes are governed by laws. For instance, a given radioactive isotope has a given half-life L. (That is to say, for any given atom of that isotope existing at time t, there is a 50% chance of its decaying before time t+L.) That atoms of this isotope have half-life L is fixed by some laws of nature. Some philosophers believe that God is responsible for installing those laws. In this way, they believe, God arranged things so as to make it possible (even probable, perhaps) for intelligent creatures to evolve. So the laws of nature are something that God could "influence" even if God does not determine the outcomes of chance processes.

Needless to say, it is far from obvious that the fundamental laws of nature are best explained by God. Some philosophers would contend that the fundamental laws of nature are brute facts -- i.e., that although the fundamental laws of nature could have been otherwise, there is no reason why they are as they are rather than otherwise. Explanation simply comes to an end with the laws; neither God nor anything else is responsible for the fundamental laws.

Other things that God could be responsible for, even if God is not responsible for the outcomes of chance processes, is the existence of spacetime, the initial conditions of the universe, and the number of universes that exist. The same caveats as in the previous paragraph apply to all of these as well.

Do you think there are two distinct kinds, 'male' and 'female', in terms of

Do you think there are two distinct kinds, 'male' and 'female', in terms of gender, biological differences, or social and cultural constraints? I know this seems like a broad question but it is asked with the idea/intention of feminism behind it. If any of you have a brief (or extensive!) philosophical opinion on any issues within this query I would be very interested to know. Thank you for your time.

Most philosophers now recognize a distinction between the biological category "sex" and the social category "gender." One's sex is determined by a collection of biological factors that typically (though not always!) go together: chromosomes, anatomy, and hormones. Gender is the social role a society assigns to persons on the basis of their sex: the set of expectations about behavior and appearance deemed appropriate for someone of that sex, and a system of rewards and sanctions that enforce conformity.

The sanctions that I speak of can take many forms. There can be explicit laws or regulations specifying which roles can be performed by males and which by females, with punishments for violators. But there can also be informal or tacit conventions that are extremely effective. A man who wants to get ahead in the American business world will not wear skirts or lipstick, whereas a woman in the same milieu will do exactly that. (Check out "Dress for Success" at your local bookstore.) More seriously, women who violate social expectations about sexual behavior, for example, are often faced with loss of social standing, and may even be regarded as fit objects for violence and rape.

Because these social forces are so effective, they create real and observable differences between men and women. Consider hair removal: current American gender norms dictate that women shall have no hair on their faces, underarms, or legs. But women do have hair in these places. (Yes, Virginia, there is a bearded lady) To conform to the "hairless" norm, they spend millions of dollars shaving, bleaching, waxing, electrically zappping, and dipilatating it off. The result is a real regularity: American women are much less hairy than American men.

But here's the kicker: although conformity to gender norms often takes a great deal of deliberate effort, it's part of the norm that this effort must be invisible. So, to stick with my example, many men are CLUELESS about what women do, and have to do, to remove hair from "unwanted places." The existence of the norm, therefore, creates not only an observable regularity, but the impression that this regularity is "natural."

There's a further complication: because the impression is fostered that these engineered regularities are "natural" -- i.e., not the result of deliberate human effort -- the content of the norm itself incorporates an ideal of naturalness: the more a woman conforms to gender expectations (regardless of how much effort and frustration this actually causes her) the more "natural" a woman she is thought to be. A woman who announced that she'd like to have children, but would prefer that her husband raise them herself because she's just not that into babies and toddlers, is regarded in contemporary American society as not just unusual, but as "unwomanly." Similarly for men -- the man willing to marry such a woman had better be really into sports, or he's a social goner.

So now I can answer your question: yes, there are differences between men and women. But given the efficacy of gender norms, no one could have any basis for attributing these differences to differences in "natures" between men and women. Indeed, the whole nature/nurture controversy is vexed, and generally embodies multiple confusions -- not the least of which is the idea that a property one has "by nature" cannot be changed. The important question, and one that can be answered, is whether the nearly universal practice of slotting people into gender roles is a good one or a bad one. The jury is in on this: gender roles are in fact, and probably are necessarily, hierarchical and oppressive. They lead to unjust social divisions based on morally irrelevant biological facts, and should be abolished.

If you want to see these points developed in more detail, let me recommend The Politics of Reality by Marilyn Frye. Enjoy.

Me and a friend were arguing about this question:

Me and a friend were arguing about this question: Is sex ultimately for reproduction or pleasure? I said reproduction, but he argues that you can have sex and never have a child, which would prove sex is for pleasure and children are the aftermath of a choice when having sex (to ejaculate and fertilize the egg). Is there any way to clear this up with the logic of evolution (to evolve, one must reproduce)?

It depends what you mean by "ultimate purpose".

Sex and all that goes with it (the associated pleasures, the urges, the courtship-instincts) has clearly evolved because of its role in reproduction. It wouldn't exist if it didn't play this role. So if something's "ultimate purpose" is to serve that role the playing of which led evolutionarily to its existence, then, yes, sex is ultimately for reproduction.

This is true, I think, even though this notion of purpose is, I take it, problematic on evolutionary grounds. One complication is that a thing (a process, a feature, a characteristic) may be a mere evolutionary by-product, and so not have a purpose in this sense. Moreover, things that evolve for one reason might start to serve new purposes, and persist and spread because of this. And finally a thing's evolutionary purpose(s) (if any) might be entirely indiscernible to us. I presume, though, that none of this applies to sex. In fact, sex is probably the only thing that I (from my armchair) feel safe attributing a specific evolutionary role to. That sex exists because of its evolutionary role in reproduction isn't disproved by cases of unsuccessful copulation, or intentional non-reproductive uses by humans, bonobos and other enlightened beings.

In any case, "ultimate purpose" in this evolutionary sense doesn't have much pull on me when it comes to determining what role an activity should play in my life. Indeed, it's a special ability of ours that we can, and should, find purposes and meanings (be they secular or religious) consciously and reflectively. And in doing this we sometimes, and with some success, diverge from the instinctual urges that move us. Most people, of course, view sex as important for reproduction (though there are now other options). But many also view it as something that can be unobjectionably pursued for non-reproductive purposes--intimacy, novelty, ritual, the sheer physical pleasure... And I see no reason why these can't be justifiably viewed as the various purposes (plural) of sex. (See how easy it is to squander your chances for political office.)

So far, I've been strictly clinical in my answer. I would, though, like to riff off an interesting dimension of your question. It's not uncommon to spend years, even decades, trying not to reproduce while having sex, to only then decide to have children and find oneself in the position of having sex in order to reproduce. This change in intentions can make for interesting differences in the sexual experience itself--some of them quite wonderful and "natural"-seeming. I would tell you more, but this site is rated G.

If evolution is the truth and we argue that the qualities living things possess

If evolution is the truth and we argue that the qualities living things possess are the result of evolution, then can we say that qualities we do not like such as hatred, jealousy and greed serve or have served a useful purpose?

Even if all living things did come to be as they are through evolution, it doesn't follow that every particular trait of a living thing contributed to its ancestors' fitness. Indeed, there can be traits which confer a selective disadvantage, but which evolution hasn't managed to weed out: perhaps it is currently slowly being weeded out; perhaps the genetic changes that would produce an organism lacking the trait (and able to pass that lack on) are so unlikely that they haven't happened often enough, or at all; perhaps the changes that, together, would be needed to eliminate the trait don't confer selective advantage when they arrive one at a time; perhaps the trait is the homozygote flip-side of a beneficial heterozygote trait; perhaps the trait is just an inevitable by-product of another trait or traits that have increased fitness . . .

One can readily generate plausible-sounding explanations of just how tendencies towards hatred, jealousy, and greed would have conferred selective advantages on our ancestors. Indeed, such stories are so easy to generate, and can seem so persuasive, that we have to be on guard. Maybe those traits did enhance fitness, but maybe not. Even if they did, that doesn't entail that they do now. And even if they do now, it could still be that we'd all be far better off if no one was ever hateful, jealous, or greedy. A big, awkward tail is selectively advantageous for the peacock, but it is entirely possible that the species would have done better in all sorts of ways if the arms (er, tails) race had never gotten going.

Is it more probable that a universe that looks designed is created by a designer

Is it more probable that a universe that looks designed is created by a designer than by random natural forces?

Here's something we might agree on, at least for the sake of argument: the chance that a (sufficiently powerful, etc.) designer would produce a "designy" universe is higher than the chance that a random selection of natural laws and initial conditions (i.e., "no designer") would do so:

Prob( designy universe GIVEN designer) > Prob(designy universe GIVEN no designer)

But you are wondering about a different comparison:

Prob (designer GIVEN designy universe) ??? Prob(no designer GIVEN designy universe)

But these latter probabilities seem much more problematic to estimate. Are we to imagine being "given" a universe "at random" with no information about it except that it is designy? But what does that even mean? How is this "random" selection made among all the possible designed and undesigned universes? Are we to assume that there is some objective fact, for instance, about what the odds are of a universe being designed rather than undesigned? This matters greatly, for if in general the odds are that universes are designed, then the first inequality above entails that the second should also be a ">"---the odds are that a designy universe is designed. But if most universes are undesigned, then it's consistent with the first inequality that there are more undesigned designy ones than designed designy ones---i.e., that the second inequality is a "<". But how are we to estimate the odds of universes in general being designed or undesigned? It's not as though we think universes are produced by spinning a roulette wheel.

Ah, someone might say, you may be right that there's no good way of estimating objective odds of these things. But what matters is subjective odds---one's degree of confidence. So, imagine that you find yourself ignorant of every matter of fact except that you are in a universe. What then would be the appropriate degree of confidence that the universe was designed? But once again this seems a hopeless question. It'd be like being confronted with a guess-the-number game where I have absolutely no clue about the range in which the number falls nor the process that was used to select it. What's my degree of confidence that the number is less than 10? Less than a thousand? A million? There's no natural, let alone inevitable way to assign these odds. Similarly, there'd be no natural way to assign odds to the universe being designed (even knowing that the first inequality holds).

We're nowhere near being able to establish a moral, but one that might begin to be suggested by these considerations is that the mere "designy-ness" of our universe is not by itself a good reason for confidence that it was designed.

This is just the tip of a large iceberg; the contemporary literature on "arguments from design" is large, sophisticated, and fascinating. I heartily recommend it to members of school boards everywhere.

This might not sound intelligent, figuring that I am 16 years old and I do

This might not sound intelligent, figuring that I am 16 years old and I do not have an extensive vocabulary as I would like. But, getting to the question, If we ever find out if there is really a God in some shape or form and that the evolutionary theory or "darwinism" is in fact not true, do you believe that it would be mass destruction and chaos in this world due to the fact that many people's beliefs have gone to waste? -Joseph S.

Dear Joseph, thank you for your question. What reaction the world would have to the scenario you envision is an empirical question better answered by a sociologist or a social psychologist. However, let me just note that when Evolution by Natural Selection started to be popularized in the Nineteenth Century, many saw that it tended to take the wind out of the Argument from Design. Many theists were indeed quite upset about this, and that is no small part of why Darwin met with such hostility. But the result was not "mass destruction and chaos." So it is not clear to me why mass destruction and chaos would result from the tables turning in the other direction.

Also, my guess is that many natural scientists who stake their research careers on Evolution by Natural Selection's being true would be *surprised* in this scenario, but rational enough to face the facts as you imagine them. If in fact they could be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that ENS is false, and that theism is true, then perhaps they would just say, "So be it," and start looking for another career. Why riot when the facts are obviously against you?