Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Delicious Blog Archive

Over on the side bar I now have a page which organizes my blog posts by topic. I used a service called del.icio.us to create this (thanks to a tip from Philosophy, et cetera).

Monday, April 25, 2005

Response on PA Intelligent Design Bill

I got a response back from Rep. Thomas Gannon after sending him a letter which expressed my opposition to the bill in the education committee of the PA House which authorized the teaching of so-called Intelligent Design theory. Below is my letter and the key paragraph of the response, which I briefly deconstruct.

First my letter---

Dear Representative Gannon:

I am writing with regard to House Bill no. 1007, which is in the Education Committee. As your constituent and a parent of school-age children, I am compelled to contact you to let you know this bill would harm the quality of science education in our schools.

The notion of “Intelligent Design” is a philosophical or theological set of ideas, it is not an accepted scientific alternative to evolution. The correct way for new theories to reach our children is by first being tested and achieving wide acceptance among scientists, not through legislative interventions by non-scientists.

Compromising the quality of science education hurts our children and it ultimately harms the competitiveness of our Commonwealth. Please do what you can to prevent this harmful bill from becoming law.

The response --- after paragraphs thanking me for writing and reporting on the status of the bill(hasn't gone anywhere yet), he writes:

It should be noted that the bill does contain language that prohibits using supporting documentation or material specific to a denominational, sectarian, or religious belief.

Should I be thankful that obviously illegal provisions are excluded?

Thus, any supportive material will need to have a scientific or logic-based component to it, not theology. Good scientific theory should stand on its own merits and should be subjected to academic scrutiny, including both theories (evolution and intelligent design).

First a good comment about the need for academic scrutiny, which if done legitimately will kill ID in its tracks. But then the "balance boogeyman" comes in with language which implies evolution and ID are on equal footing as "theories".

I will be interested to see what recommendation the subcommittee makes and how that impacts the bill's chances for passage.

Non-committal on whether he would support the bill or not.
We'll see where this goes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005


In debates about God, a lot of time is wasted on discussion of whether one could prove or disprove God’s existence. This is not going to happen. So it is really about whether the existence of God (or a particular concept of God) is plausible (or very plausible) and thereby worthy of our belief.

In a couple of short paragraphs on this blog I will cut through centuries of debate and draw conclusions about the plausibility of God’s existence by looking at some of the evidence we see (or don’t see) in our world.

In my view, the positive evidence for the existence of God is the widespread belief which exists among billions of folks. I think there is something to the religious experiences people have reported which provides support to the concept of a divine essence in the world, i.e. a sense of connection with something large accompanied by feelings of purpose and value. I believe these experiences provide much less support for the existence of any detailed conception of a divine being, since the more specific features get reported after passing through a filter of preconceptions about God and religion.

Most of the other traditional philosophical arguments for the existence of God have been adequately countered and don’t offer plausible reasons for belief. Because it continues to make hay in our culture let me comment on one: I give no credit to design-based arguments for a transcendent personal God, given that we can easily conceive of rich but impersonal processes giving rise to the world we experience (I’m not claiming today’s science has this all figured out of course).

The main evidence against the existence of God comes from the well-discussed problems of evil and suffering and the related general problem of divine hiddenness. The existence of evil and the suffering of the innocent makes the existence of a God which is both benevolent and omnipotent (able to intervene) extremely implausible. Philosophers of religion these days have to resort to tortured exercises in modal logic to try to defend against this argument. Importantly, this is not an argument against a deity which lacks one of the specified attributes, say, omnipotence.

Divine hiddenness asks why God doesn’t reveal his or herself in a straightforward way. The answer is usually that God is playing a game to see who will believe anyway for use in judging us, or simply that the reasons for this (as well as for allowing evil) are beyond our comprehension. Given the weakness of these arguments, this problem again leads me to conclude the existence of God is implausible. Again I must note that this issue has traction against the God with the particular package of attributes of traditional monotheism, and is not an argument against all kinds of theism. Actually, I can’t see that any traditional arguments against the existence of God apply to pantheism.

So, I conclude that the existence of some impersonal and limited divine essence in the world is plausible. However, the existence of a God with the particular attributes offered by traditional monotheism is extremely implausible.

Sometime soon I will follow up with thoughts about the case for pantheism (and/or its relative, panentheism).

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Ethical Stance toward the Brain-Damaged

Now that the political and media circus surrounding Terri Schiavo has quieted, let me try out my “ethics of subjective experience” perspective on the issue. I don’t know the specifics of Schiavo’s neurobiology, so I’ll keep the discussion general.

I have been tentatively trying out the idea of assigning moral value to the quality and robustness of subjective experience as a crucial (but never sole) guide to ethical issues (see posts here and here). The healthy human represents the pinnacle of high quality, robust first-person experience, but some level of subjective experience exists in other natural systems as well (see for instance this recent post).

Severe damage to the neocortex might eliminate higher cognitive brain functions, and radically diminish experience. But if other parts of the brain (as well as the rest of the body) were functioning, and if we could determine that the patient was not in pain, it would be wrong to assign zero value to the patient’s subjective experience. Not to be flippant, but what if the person’s experience were akin some kind of lower mammal, or bird or fish? I would assign some value to this status. I object to the term “vegetative state”, which seems to make so many implicit assumptions. Of course the more we can learn about the neurobiology of the patients, the more we can infer about their experience.

Beyond the experience criteria, other positive considerations for valuing the person’s life would include special consideration that the person is a member of the human family, and not actually an animal (some limited species-ism is OK, in other words); and an “uncertainty premium” associated with our imperfect knowledge of neurobiology. Weighed with these issues would be the expressed wishes of the patient (absent in Schiavo’s case), then the wishes of kin (unfortunately conflicting in Schiavo’s case), and finally the cost to broader society (modest in Schiavo’s case).

As usual there are shades of gray. Given the above considerations, I must disagree with those who argue that loss of distinctively human cognition is equivalent to death. Of course, those who likened removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube to murder are wrong also. Given a very low but positive value to be placed on a patient’s subjective experience, it is appropriate that the decision lay in weighing some of the secondary issues mentioned above such as the wishes of kin and the cost to society.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


I just read an interesting post on the navigation between realism (objectivism) and relativism/nihilism on DuckRabbit. It inspired me to offer my brief take on these issues below.

Human beings have evolved as natural systems embedded in the larger network which is the world. Our view of the world is a view from the inside. There can be no strictly objective truth as if from a standpoint outside the world. Insistence on such a standard leads to confusion. However, our participation in the world's activity provides a solid ground for knowledge and for value. We are not separate from the world, our experience is directly of the world. There is no basis for nihilism.

Also, there is no basis for extreme forms of relativism: human beings are extremely homogeneous with regard to their biology, and their position in space and time. There is therefore an underlying inter-subjective truth we share with one another. Science is based on a methodology constructed to reach this authentic intersubjective agreement. In other spheres of life, like the moral, it is much more complex and difficult, but there is no reason we can't have increasing success as our global culture evolves.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Intelligent Design Creeping Closer to Home

Unfortunately, the politically motivated efforts to get "Intelligent Design" into our schools comes ever closer to home. First, the Dover school district (near York) and now a bill in committee in the PA state legislature. I have just sent off a letter to my state representative. Details on this post on Tea Leaves (which I found via Pharyngula).

Friday, April 01, 2005

Animal Consciousness

The mind/body debate in philosophy got started well before evolutionary theory came on the scene (Descartes evidently thought animals were automata). Debates about the nature of consciousess of course center on the human sort, since that is the one we’re directly acquainted with. But, given we now better understand our close relationship with our non-verbal animal cousins, I am persuaded that animals have first-person experiences. In particular, feelings and emotions appear to be markers of old evolutionary imperatives (fight, flee, eat, etc.), which are likely shared widely in the animal kingdom.

If so, then the “hard problem” of consciousness faces a challenge of accounting for first-person experience in natural systems more broadly than just the human case; the issue can be seen as distinct from others relating to specifically human intelligence and language.

We know about other human minds by analogy with our own. To inform us about animal minds, we would proceed by looking at the neuro-biological correlates of human consciousness, and seeing which have close analogues in the neural structures of animals and which don't. This, of course, can be supplemented by behavioral and other evidence.

The journal Consciousess and Cognition has a new special issue on the Neurobiology of Animal Consciousness. Just what the doctor ordered! Here's the abstract of the introductory article by Bernard Baars:

In humans, conscious perception and cognition depends upon the thalamocortical (T-C) complex, which supports perception, explicit cognition, memory, language, planning, and strategic control. When parts of the T-C system are damaged or stimulated, corresponding effects are found on conscious contents and state, as assessed by reliable reports. In contrast, large regions like cerebellum and basal ganglia can be damaged without affecting conscious cognition directly. Functional brain recordings also show robust activity differences in cortex between experimentally matched conscious and unconscious events. This basic anatomy and physiology is highly conserved in mammals and perhaps ancestral reptiles. While language is absent in other species, homologies in perception, memory, and motor cortex suggest that consciousness of one kind or another may be biologically fundamental and phylogenetically ancient. In humans we infer subjective experiences from behavioral and brain evidence. This evidence is quite similar in other mammals and perhaps some non-mammalian species. On the weight of the biological evidence, therefore, subjectivity may be conserved in species with human-like brains and behavior.

The evidence for human-like subjective experience seems compelling for mammals; less so for non-mammals, but less of the relevant research has been done on those.