Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Ethics of Eating Meat: An Omnivore’s Perspective

The NYT is asking carnivores to ethically justify eating meat. As they note, vegetarianism is all the rage and it’s especially popular among philosophers (which makes it difficult to choose a restaurant if a bunch of them are going out for dinner). Peter Singer, one of the judges of the NYT contest, has argued that meat-eating is morally wrong. Now I’m an omnivore, which almost makes me unique in philosophical company, and I’ve often thought about how I might justify my dietary choices philosophically. Below are some scattered thoughts on how I might go about it. But first, why are vegetarians against meat-eating?

Of course, people are vegetarians for many reasons. Some make a health argument, but that’s not my concern here. From now on, when I say ‘vegetarian’ I’ll mean something like ‘philosophical vegetarian’ or one who makes a philosophical, specifically ethical, argument in favour of vegetarianism. Vegetarians, like Singer, often argue along utilitarian or consequentialist lines: we shouldn’t eat meat because it causes sentient creatures pain. This may be true in practice, but it’s not in principle. It’s possible to euthanize animals painlessly. So it can’t simply be a matter of avoiding pain; there’s a deeper objection here. Some might argue that it’s not just causing pain to which they object, but to the ending of life. But this objection assumes that animals are the subjects of a life in roughly the way humans are. How do we know that, especially for any order lower than mammals? Is a lobster sufficiently conscious such that killing it is a grave violation of another subject, or self, the way that killing a human would be? I don’t think we can conclude this with any degree of confidence.

Granted, there are two dangers here: imagining that animals are just like us or imagining that animals are nothing like us. I’m certainly not claiming that animals are simply automata that don’t feel pain (although there is some debate about whether they experience pain in the same way that humans do). Some probably also experience certain emotions. But our ability to ‘inhabit’ another creature’s experience is severely limited. Thomas Nagel (in a very different context) wrote an essay called “What is it Like to be a Bat?” He assumes that there’s something-that-it’s-like to be a bat, but we can’t know what that is. We might be able to equate human to animal experience in some cases (primates or other mammals very close to us), but in most cases, this is arguably a fallacy. It’s even more problematic with creatures lower than mammals. Is there even a something-that-it’s-like to be a lobster? A scallop? A prawn? Are we doing harm to these creatures’ subjectivity or self-hood by killing and eating them? Do they even have such a thing? I don’t think that vegetarians have sufficiently demonstrated harm in these cases.

If there are no reasons not to eat meat, are there reason to do so? Arguably meat eating is pleasurable, not only in a sensory way, but also socially. Many (though not all) vegetarians admit this, but make the sacrifice. However, I don’t think one can be morally blamed on consequentialist grounds for not making that sacrifice. It might seem hedonistic to argue from pleasure, but pleasure and happiness are relevant to moral considerations. Granted, you cannot consider only your own pleasure, but pleasure, generally, counts if you’re a consequentialist. Some may argue that the trade-off between human and animal pleasure as a result of meat-eating doesn’t balance out. But even if there are trade-offs, sophisticated hedonists from Epicurus to J.S. Mill have recognized that there are higher and lower pleasures. Mill said, “Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” We are qualitatively different creatures than animals and are capable of enjoying higher order pleasures. So the quality, not just quantity, of pleasure is a relevant consideration. So eating meat can make life more enjoyable without necessarily decreasing the net happiness in the world. Vegetarians might argue that this works in theory, but not in practice. I’d agree that meat production is messy; much can be done to change that at both the local and industrial level. But if these practical problems are overcome, I’ve argued that there’s no reason to object to meat-eating in principle.


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Krauss and a Universe from ‘Nothing’

A good piece in the NYT on Krauss’ bad metaphysics masquerading as science.

Update: Sam Harris interviews Krauss here.

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Dialogue between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams

I’m a bit late to the party on this, but Richard Dawkins recently dialogued with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. You can watch the exchange here. Their discussion ranged widely over a number of issues and was moderated by agnostic philosopher Anthony Kenny (although he participated to greater extent than most moderators). Here are a few scattered thoughts of my own on the exchange.

I was quite happy to see a different, less strident side of Richard Dawkins. I thought he comported himself in a gentlemanly way. The Archbishop was, as ever, polite to a fault, but some genuine disagreement managed to emerge. I liked Williams’ strategy of talking about what kind of universe it would take to produce intelligent, conscious beings. In other words, what kind of properties must be inherent in the material world for it to produce intelligent life? This seemed to me to be a much more fruitful approach than arguing that God must intervene constantly in order to achieve that end. Williams resisted the impulse that many Christians seem to have to make God into a micro-manager. However, that approach left him somewhat vulnerable to Dawkins suggestion that if the material universe is capable of producing such extraordinary effects, God becomes superfluous. But Dawkins seems to think that any God worthy of the name must be the sort of God that science could detect directly; a tinkerer God. A telling difference between the two protagonists emerged at the end when Williams commented that, for him, God is not something that has to be shoe-horned into the natural world after the fact, at which point Dawkins confessed that that’s exactly how he views the issue. It’s fascinating that these two are separated by what might be called a theological difference!

They discussed consciousness and free will, which Dawkins acknowledged do pose hard problems for naturalism, but expressed confidence that these would be solved by some combination of neuroscience and computer science. Whether consciousness could be produced in ‘hardware’ other than brains is a fascinating question and I don’t rule out the possibility. Williams didn’t seem to rule it out either, suggesting an emergent view of consciousness. I appreciate that he resisted the move — made by many Christians — of describing the soul as a supernatural add-on to material beings. It seems to me that physicalism with respect to human persons is a growing view among Christians. However, if the Christian view is to be believed, there is a metaphysical dualism at the root of reality, namely between God (spirit) and the world (matter). Therefore, a Christian might expect a priori that we would find substance dualism with respect to human persons as well. Moreover, one might expect evidence for physicalism to be evidence against theism. I think that these are important issues that need to be addressed by theistic philosophers and expect to see a growing intersection between philosophy of religion and philosophy of mind in the near future.

As usual, the problem of evil, the wastefulness of evolution, and design flaws came up for discussion. These issues were more problematic for the theistic perspective. Dawkins led with his usual argument that evolution, and the suffering it entails, is exactly what we would expect on naturalism. Unfortunately, Williams didn’t get a chance to say much on this point and what he did say was more pastoral than apologetical. He reiterated the point about divine micro-management being unlikely given his particular view of God. He also drew out some disanalogies between what it means for a human to design something and what it might mean for God to create (he shied away from the term ‘design’) a universe. I do think there are some legitimate theological challenges for the Christian who accepts evolution. I’m not sure if the Archbishop accepts this view, but some theistic evolutionists claim that we ought to expect evolution on theism. In other words, the fact that evolution, rather than special creation, is true, is of no evidential value for the atheist. Of course, Richard Dawkins would reject this view! For Dawkins, the fact of evolution is powerful evidence for atheism. But Dawkins isn’t the only one who thinks that evolution has some evidential value in the debate between theism and naturalism. Paul Draper has argued that evolution is more probable on naturalism than on theism. Also, Alvin Plantinga has said that we cannot know a priori that God would choose evolution; special creation would seem to be a live option. Therefore, I think the theist needs to do more than show mere compatibility between evolution and theism; one needs to take into account the probability of evolution vs. special creation on theism.

They discussed the origin of life next. Dawkins was quite candid that the origin of life is another tough problem, since the mechanisms of mutation and natural selection that are so successful in explaining evolution are not available at the level of pre-biotic chemistry. However, Dawkins suspects that there must have been something like a proto-genetic self-replicating molecule. He briefly discusses the ‘RNA world’ theory which suggests that RNA originally performed the replicating function later performed by DNA. Since I don’t know much about the science, I’m assuming that RNA is a simpler molecule than DNA and would be easier to account for in naturalistic terms. But Dawkins is quite measured in his statements, claiming only that ‘RNA world’ is only the most fashionable theory currently. On the probability of life arising, Dawkins admits that it is fantastically improbable, but that it only had to happen once. Since there are billions of planets, there are many opportunities for life to arise. This version of the anthropic principle, however, ignores the fine-tuning argument that states that unless the initial conditions of the universe are finely tuned, even stars would not have formed, much less planets. Williams suggests that whatever else we can say about the universe, it certainly seems to be an anthropogenic universe and what he calls an informational universe. He sees these features as being more at home in a theistic account.

Anthony Kenny then asked Dawkins why he is an atheist rather than an agnostic. Here, Dawkins said that he doesn’t, strictly speaking, know that there is no God. But the term agnostic implies that there is a 50/50 chance. Dawkins thinks we can assign a much lower probability to theism, and therefore is justified in calling himself an atheist. He also repeats his “ultimate Boeing 747” argument from The God Delusion: any being who could do what God is allegedly able to do, would have to be very complex, much more complex than the so-called ‘specified complexity’ he is invoked to explain. At this point, both Kenny and Williams responded that theologians have always maintained that God is simple, i.e. not composed of parts. Dawkins argument assumes that God is in some sense a creature. I would agree that Dawkins presupposes materialism in his argument. He claims that minds are products of brains and thus arrive very late in evolutionary terms. And since brains, and consciousness, are the most complex things we know of in the universe, there’s no way there could be something like a mind at the beginning of the process. But this reasoning is just plain question-begging.

They finally did get around to discussing fine-tuning versus the multiverse theory, but didn’t say anything new. Kenny queried whether multiverse was any less metaphysical or any more parsimonious with what we know than the theistic hypothesis. Dawkins responded that physicists invoke the multiverse theory for reasons other than explaining away fine-tuning. I actually think there’s a lot more to be said on this issue, but perhaps I’ll leave that for a future post. All in all, I enjoyed this dialogue although there’s little here that one familiar with these issues will not have heard before.

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Re-branding Philosophy?

Colin McGinn has written a piece for the NYT on re-branding philosophy. He suggests that academic philosophers are doing science and the term ‘philosophy’ doesn’t reflect the scientific nature of the discipline. ‘Philosophy’ instead suggests sage advice about the meaning of life and the ‘Big Questions.’ Apparently academic philosophers aren’t in the business of addressing such vague questions anymore. Rather, philosophers, like scientists, are interested in solving tractable problems. McGinn suggests that the term ‘ontics’ replace ‘philosophy’ as a more accurate moniker for what philosophers are doing, namely a systematic study of the nature of reality.

Of course, some would say that philosophy belongs to the humanities, but McGinn rejects the view that philosophy is primarily concerned with human culture. There are a lot of issues looming here, some of which might reflect the so-called Analytic/Continental divide (although this terminology has largely outlived whatever utility it might’ve had). While disagreement about what philosophy is and should be will persist, some philosophers do see the task of philosophy as essentially dissolving problems that are caused by our (mis)use of language. Once we unravel these conceptual and linguistic entanglements, we’ll see that there wasn’t really a problem there to begin with — or at least not a philosophical problem. If any genuine, i.e. empirical, problems remain, they can be handed off to the relevant sciences. At this juncture, I don’t think that the analytic and Continental traditions are too far apart.

One of the things you find when you go to grad school in philosophy, is that the ‘Big Questions’ that professors pitched you as an undergrad and that sparked your interest in philosophy in the first place, are basically absent. Instead, you find that academic philosophy is pretty deflationary. You’re either reducing philosophical problems to linguistic pseudo-problems that don’t need to be solved or redefining them as empirical problems for the sciences to solve. In other words, you’re just playing language games. Maybe instead of ‘ontics’ it would be more honest to go with ‘semantics.’ I don’t know if any proposed re-branding is going to stick. (Remember Daniel Dennett’s attempt to get naturalists to call themselves ‘brights’?) But I think that philosophers should make some attempt to define just what the hell it is that they do. Because right now, I’m confused and I’m more of an insider than most.

So we’re told by McGinn that philosophers don’t see themselves as asking timeless questions, but working on tractable problems that can be solved. Contrary to popular belief, there is progress in philosophy. This view isn’t particularly new. We’ve seen the experimental philosophy movement — which conceives of philosophy as a social science — enjoy some popularity recently. But the desire of philosophy to emulate the methodology and success of the hard sciences has been around for a while. ‘Armchair philosophy’ is term of derision both inside and outside the academy these days. This science envy is probably particularly strong in McGinn’s sub-field, philosophy of mind, which is populated by hard physicalists, like Patricia Churchland, who often sound more like neuroscientists than philosophers, traditionally conceived. And McGinn is probably right that philosophers of mind are often misunderstood by their more ‘scientific’ interdisciplinary colleagues in neuroscience, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence research. Shouldn’t we then re-brand philosophy so that it gets more respect (and funding)?

I think this is the crux of the matter. Philosophy departments have a hard time justifying their existence to administrators in these tough economic times. Without ‘practical’ courses in logic and critical thinking, philosophy departments would be hard-pressed to justify their place in the contemporary university. The university has become a business, education a commodity, and students the consumer. University is a place, not to broaden the mind or become a better, more reflective citizen of our democracy, but a place to acquire marketable skills. So philosophy departments play that game; they don’t have much choice. In the case of the sciences, the practical pay-off is more obvious and so funding is more readily available. Couldn’t the re-branding of philosophy as science be seen against this economic backdrop? The cynic in me says ‘yes.’

Of course, I’m not advocating that philosophy departments be blind to systemic economic and political realities. Part of the problem with most grad schools, and their students, is precisely blindness of this sort. We have to be realists about the contemporary university and we do have to be able to translate the value of philosophy into a vocabulary that non-philosophers and financial decision-makers can understand. But re-branding philosophy as ‘ontics’ and marketing it as a science simply seems disingenuous to me. There are other, in my opinion more honest, ways to go about it. I’ve found it useful to talk about philosophy as a genre of literature and a systematic, rational methodology. The two are not mutually exclusive, but mutually enriching. The strength of philosophy is that it combines the liberal arts and logic. I see it having a salutary effect on both liberal arts and science students. For the humanities student, philosophy provides some ‘hard’ skills, like being able to understand symbolic logic. For the science student, it provides some ‘soft’ skills, like being able to interpret the nuances of a complicated text. Both types of student leave a philosophy course with a more balanced education. I think that’s a good worth having in our society.

But perhaps my cynicism with respect to the ‘ontics’ movement is off the mark. Maybe McGinn (I’d also add Dennett and Churchland to the list) are right, and philosophy just is a science. But they certainly haven’t made their case yet. I think they’d minimally have to offer a definition of what ‘progress’ might mean in philosophy, account for the fact that there is much less consensus in philosophy than in science, and provide a stronger justification of metaphysical naturalism so that we’d have prima facie reason to accept the claim that reality, the nature of which ontics allegedly studies, is limited to the physical reality that natural science studies. Unless and until this happens, I’m happy to stick with ‘philosophy.’

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Time and the Kalam Cosmological Argument

The Leap Year got me thinking about the nature of time. I’m certainly no expert in this domain, although I find it utterly fascinating. There are roughly three (realist) philosophical positions on the nature of time: eternalism, possibilism, and presentism. Eternalism basically states that time exists as a block, analogous to space. “Now” is just an arbitrary point, like “north.” An interesting consequence of eternalism is that the past and the future are just as real as the present. It’s not the case that the past is gone and the future isn’t there. Moreover, past and future persons, objects, and events are just as real as present ones. Possibilism agrees with eternalism about the past, but not the future. The past is just as real as the present, but the future isn’t. The future is still open, still ‘becoming.’ Presentism differs from both views in saying that only the present is real. The past is gone and the future isn’t real yet.

I don’t want to go into the nuances of these positions. Rather, I’d like to explore the implications of these different theories for the Kalam Cosmological Argument. This argument is a temporal version of the cosmological argument that argues that the past must be finite and must, therefore, have a beginning and, hence, a Beginner. The argument has been stated by its foremost contemporary defender, William Lane Craig, as follows: P1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause. P2: The universe began to exist. Conclusion: Therefore, the universe had a cause. Some further argumentation is provided to the effect that this cause is personal, immaterial, powerful, intelligent, etc. What interests me is the philosophical defense of premise 2. It goes something like this: P1: An actual infinite cannot exist. P2 A beginningless series of past events is an actual infinite. Conclusion: A beginningless series of past events cannot exist.

In defense of premise 1, Craig appeals to “Hilbert’s Hotel.” Imagine a hotel with an infinite number of rooms and all the rooms are occupied. Imagine now a new guest arrives. The clerk simply moves everyone ‘up’ a room. The guest from room 1 is now in room 2, the guest from room 2 is now in room 3, etc. So room 1 is now available and the new guest checks in. But now imagine that infinitely many new guests arrive. No problem! The clerk simply moves everybody into the room double their original room number. So the guest from 1 is now in room 2, the guest in room 2 is now in room 4, etc. so that all the odd numbered rooms are now available and the infinitely many new guests check in. Suppose the next morning, the infinitely many new guests check out. How many guests checked out? Infinitely many. How many guests are left? Infinitely many. But suppose instead that all the guest in rooms 4 and up check out. How many guests checked out? Infinitely many. How many are left? Three. Note, however, that in both cases the same number of guests check out. This paradoxical result is supposed to show that the notion of an actual infinite is contradictory and therefore impossible.

So Craig and other defenders of the Kalam argument conclude that the past must be finite. However, Craig, like most Christian theists, holds that there is an afterlife that goes on forever. He is quick to point out that the future is only potentially infinite, whereas the past would have to be actually infinite if the universe didn’t have a beginning. Craig’s argument assumes that there is a relevant difference between the past and the future, and this is where one’s philosophy of time will effect one’s evaluation of the Kalam argument. If one is a presentist, as Craig is, one won’t have a problem. If there is something special about “now” and we would have to traverse an actual infinite to arrive at the present, and traversing an actual infinite is impossible, then we’d never get to “now.” With respect to the future, it’s not real, so we are not “going anywhere” i.e. some point infinitely distant. So Craig can say that the future is only potentially infinite. No problem with an afterlife. I suspect one could also be a possibilist and accept the Kalam argument. On possibilism, the future is relevantly different from the past and, as far as I know, nothing commits the possibilist to the infinity of the past.

On eternalism, however, one runs into problems. If eternalism is true, the future is not relevantly different from the past. All of time is just a block. The future is already there, and if it goes on forever, as in Christian theology, it makes sense to speak of it as infinite. What about the Hilbert’s Hotel objection? I think it shows the notion of an actual infinite is counter-intuitive, but not necessarily contradictory. Wes Morriston, a theistic critic of the Kalam argument, has envisioned a scenario that yields the same paradoxes as Hilbert’s Hotel, but with regard to a “potentially” infinite future. Suppose God has decreed that Bill and Wes offer praises to God alternating every celestial minute for all eternity. How many praises will Bill and Wes offer? Morriston thinks the only sensible answer is ‘infinitely many.’ But now suppose that God decrees that Bill and Wes take every other of their celestial minutes off to allow a third worshiper to join in. How many praises will the third worshiper offer? Again, Morriston thinks the only sensible answer is ‘infinitely many.’ We’re beginning to generate the same paradoxes we encountered with Hilbert’s Hotel. But this future scenario certainly seems possible. Couldn’t God decree this? In a dialogue between Craig and Morriston on the Kalam argument (which sadly wasn’t recorded), Craig responded by saying that the number of praises offered would be indefinite. For Morriston, given the constraints of the scenario, this is not a possible answer. Craig responded by appealing to presentism, which strengthens my intuition (I doubt it’s original) that one’s evaluation of the strength of the Kalam argument has a lot to do with one’s philosophy of time. If you have presentist or possibilist leanings, the argument seems like a good one. If you’re an eternalist, you probably won’t give it the time of day. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

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