Archive for July, 2008

Evolution Education and Philosophy in High Schools

There’s a very well written op-ed article in today’s Washington Post that I was alerted to over at Science and Religion News. The title of the article is Evolving Towards a Compromise, and the gist of it is that some changes in science curriculum could help diffuse the support for the outright teaching of creationism. Rather than simply teach evolution, the article proposes teaching about what is and is not implied by evolutionary theory. To allay one of the specters brought up again and again by those who misunderstand evolutionary theory, for example, it is suggested that teachers explain that the description of the evolution of human behavior does not necessarily imply how humans should act.

I think that the article suggests a good direction that should be pursued by defenders of evolution education. Different polls show again and again that a majority of Americans are in favor of joint classroom time for both creationism and evolution. By discussing what evolution does not imply, perhaps educators can answer the public’s desire for a fair curriculum without having to go off the deep end and teach creationism.

There’s a major problem, though: class time. The authors of the op-ed apologize for asking educators to “shoulder another burden”, but between national and state standards it’s pretty hard to squeeze everything people want into the curriculum. Maybe better synchronization and communication between teachers could help with the compromise proposed– if, for instance, a social studies or history teacher could teach about the naturalistic fallacy while the biology department taught about evolution. The concepts would then be communicated at the same time, but the pressure on biology teachers to balance the demands of the public would be distributed amongst the faculty. The school district where I grew up tried to structure class groups along these lines (at least in middle school, where the district could largely determine which classes a student took) and it frequently had good results.

Something implied by the article, yet not explored, is the question of if and how to fit philosophical material into the public school curriculum. My high school was aberrant in that there was a single semester elective philosophy course open to juniors and seniors. I was too busy filling every elective slot with a music class at the time, and so unfortunately didn’t take it. A few friends did, however, and it was a class they truly enjoyed. So there is a high school audience for philosophy.

If there were a philosophy class included in the curriculum, there would be a natural setting where things like the naturalistic fallacy could be taught. There are a few problems with the inclusion of a philosophy class, however, that transcend the usual problems of funding and demand. First, there would be little point in making philosophy a required subject. In my experience, philosophy demands student curiosity and interest in order to be taught. The word means “love of knowledge” or “love of wisdom”, after all. Second, at least in my district biology was taught during freshman year. While I hope to have carried my high estimation of the intellectual abilities of high school students with me as I’ve gotten older, I don’t think that a philosophy class is for high school freshmen. It’s hard enough to take an introductory philosophy class as a college freshman. I’m not sure if biology is always taught, or has to be taught, during freshman year, however—does anyone out there know the reasoning behind placing biology the first in order of high school science classes? Is it the mathematical elements of chemistry and physics that requires that they be taught later than biology?

Having an elective philosophy course available alongside a biology class, even for a semester, makes a great deal of sense. It would create an appropriate space for the discussion of how philosophy and biology interact, and it would also provide an option for those parents who feel strongly that their child should be trained in critical thinking. It’s too bad that there are hardly available resources for such a class, and also that the class may be impossible to schedule. It’s a nauseatingly cheerful thought, but wouldn’t it be great if people realized the importance of a good philosophy class as a result of the long-running fight over evolution education?

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July 26, 2008 at 12:59 pm 2 comments

Why Anthropocentrism Works for Deep Ecology

In “The Deep Ecology Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects” and other essays, Arne Naess wrote that an anthropocentric system of ethics is not a sound foundation for deep ecology. This was true for Naess even if such an anthropocentric ethic seemed to support the goals of the deep ecology movement. On this point, I think that Naess has it dead wrong. While all the possible foundations that Naess mentions provide a very intuitive basis for believing in the deep ecology platform, it is possible to have an anthropocentric ethic and still believe that the goals of deep ecology are important to pursue.

Right out the gate, it seems like the deep ecology platform is opposed to an anthropocentric ethic. The first tenant of the platform, after all, refers to the intrinsic value of all human and non-human life. How can an anthropocentric ethic recognize the intrinsic value of non-human life? If recognizing the intrinsic value of non-humans means that we must equate their value with those of humans, than I’m afraid Naess has me. It would seem a contradiction in terms to think that an anthropocentric ethic could work in such a way and remain anthropocentric. If, on the other hand, we can recognize the intrinsic value of non-human life and then acknowledge that different beings have different value, and that the flourishing of a being means something different for each kind of being, then an anthropocentric ethic can work for deep ecology. I see no reason why this take on intrinsic value is incorrect.

Naess is concerned, however, that even this variety of anthropocentric thinking provides too shaky a foundation for the deep ecology platform. He writes in “Deep Ecology: Some Philosophical Aspects” that such a foundation does not effective enough in producing belief in the deep ecology movement. The deep ecological ethic “would surely be more effective if it were acted upon by people who believe in its validity, rather than its usefulness.” This brings to my mind Richard Rorty’s call for sentimental education as a background for ethics. Rorty identifies the difficulty human rights ethicists have in posing effective arguments to those racists or sexists who believe that those they persecute are less than human. He proposes an education that emphasizes empathy and sentimentality as a means of promoting human rights that bypasses the arguments and deaf ears. The difference between Rorty’s call and Naess’ is that Rorty is open about his advocacy of sentimentality on the basis of its usefulness and Naess is not.

By promoting certain kinds of foundations on the basis of their usefulness and then refusing to count a pragmatic ethic among them, Naess is being somewhat inconsistent. It’s fair to say that the usefulness of a foundation is not Naess’ only criteria for an adequate foundation for the deep ecology platform, but it should be acknowledged as one criteria among many. For Naess, however, acknowledging utility as a sound ethical criteria falls into the category of shallow (read: narrow-minded) ecology. I think that this is to the detriment of what should be the big tent of the deep ecology movement, especially as an anthropocentric ethic can include belief in the intrinsic values of non-humans and can be quite effective in motivating ethical action.

July 23, 2008 at 10:22 pm Leave a comment

Supernaturalistic vs. Naturalistic Ethical Foundations: The Case of Deep Ecology

This is reposted from an email that I sent off to some friends in response to some questions about Arne Naess– so if you guys are reading this, feel free to respond here, too.

The reason why I think that deep ecology doesn’t quite qualify as a philosophy is that it ties philosophical positions to political action directly, and refuses to differentiate between the two. While this is part of what makes it interesting, it also makes it philosophically vulnerable. Because deep ecology was designed as a movement, it has weak philosophical foundations. When asked to defend his value of interconnectedness, for example, Naess falls back on Spinoza’s metaphysics. Since Spinoza’s metaphysics have a substantial supernatural component, I think they’re untenable. I also think that his ideas regarding substance are quasi-mystical at best, and nonsensical at worst. There are a lot of better ways to defend the idea that by endorsing the values of deep ecology, you’re also endorsing an idea that will help the progress of the human race in general. We don’t need enlightenment or 19th century philosophy to back us up on this point– 20th and 21st century philosophy can do the job just fine.

For example, consider evolutionary ethics. There are a couple people out there who are trying to blend work in evolutionary psychology on the nature of altruism with traditional systems of ethics. It’s important to note that this kind of work is mostly descriptive, and not prescriptive, so it’s not the strongest kind of ethics. What it does describe, however, is some basic reasons why ethical action is important to humans as a species. Beyond that, we can take cultural and pragmatic hints and flesh out the sort of ethics we think are important, and they will become important (kind of like hauling yourself up by your bootstraps) just because they are things we value. Our ethics will then become twofold– one part descriptive and very naturalistic, one part prescriptive and pragmatic. Knowledge of the first will help inform how we want to develop the second, until we can answer the question of how we should act.

With that sort of system, we don’t need to rely on a spinozistic metaphysics or the other quasi-mystical principles that Naess is into in order to get to the goals that Naess wants. Since I agree with his goals, but not his foundation, this is just where I want to be. To return to talking about the value of interconnectedness, let’s take a critical look at Naess’ foundation. He believes in the interconnectedness of beings because of a unity of substance in the world– since all beings are made out of one kind of substance, we’re all connected because of similar qualities. Some beings have a different, sort of divine substance which enables conscious action, and we as humans are also made up of this substance. Because of this, we can improve the overall quality of substance by maximizing the flourishing of all beings. Naess has a very special definition of flourishing that differs only slightly from the idea of utilitarian good, but since they’re mostly analogous to one another I won’t go into it here.

But we can defend the value of interconnectedness without all that talk about substances by taking a more naturalistic turn. First, we have some biological similarity with other beings. This is closest with other primates, mammals, and then spreads out from there. We are also increasingly concerned with sustainable development, partially because we’re starting to realize (as a political whole, hopefully), that our lifestyle depends upon a better stewardship of the resources we use to maintain those lifestyles. As our interests are similar to the interests of some other creatures on the planet, and also tied up within the interests of other non-human beings, it makes sense pragmatically to place more value on how our goods are tied up with the goods of non-humans. If we want better lifestyles for increasing numbers of people, it seems like this is a value that will help us achieve that goal. All of that teleological ethical thinking is valid, and it doesn’t rely on Naess’ more spaced-out thinking. That is where we should all want to be.

July 19, 2008 at 10:21 pm 1 comment

Moon Water, Evidence, and Theory

Water was discovered on the moon! At least it was in tiny, trapped particles in the moon rocks that the Apollo mission brought back decades ago. Technology has apparently advanced sufficiently so that geologists are now able to search for water particles in rock on the scale of five parts per million. Don’t get too excited, now, but up to 46 parts per million were found. That’s around 1500 times more than the legal amount of mercury allowed in sewage, so… it’s still not very much.

It’s enough, however, to require the need for adjustment in the theory of how the moon came to exist and orbit earth. Before this discovery, it was thought that the heat of the moon’s initial collision with earth vaporized every bit of water on the rock. Now that even a little water has been discovered, the heat of the two planets at the time of collision is called into question.

But why not pose an alternate hypothesis? It’s been put forward that whatever water discovered on the moon might be due to smaller impacts from comets or meteors. This seems unlikely, however, as the water particles were found trapped within rock formed by a volcanic explosion. If the water was brought up from deep within or under the moon’s crust, then the idea that it was brought by an impact seems more extraordinary than that of a slight revision of the lunar origin theory.

It’s an interesting story, but beyond that a good example of new evidence prompting theory revision. It’s a simple example that covers fairly well (especially with the mention of an alternate hypothesis) the basics of theory adjustment. New evidence surfaces, in this case because of technological improvement. This new evidence calls into question parts of a previously accepted theory. The response of the scientific (in this case, geologic) community is to consider how to adjust the theory, or whether they can fit the new evidence into the previous theory by proposing an alternate hypothesis. Props to National Geographic for framing this example of good science well—and know that I’ll be looking to check out the study in more detail in today’s edition of Nature.

P.S. This might be a stick in the eye for some lunar hoax people, too. Is the government just making up new information now, perpetuating the hoax 40 years down the road? Or perhaps they were just holding out on the technological development of the 1960s, where they were able to create authentic bits of trapped water in rock on the order of parts per million we were hitherto unable to detect? I wonder what they conspiracy nuts are saying…

July 10, 2008 at 12:10 pm 1 comment

How does the study of science and religion fit with the study of science?

The way I’m thinking about the relationship of science and religion right now is through the lens of a nesting metaphor. I’m a little wary of this: it could be that nesting is too oblique, and that it doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the relationship. Right now, however, I think of the study of science and religion as one that’s half in, and half out of, the study of science nest. It’s not that the religion part hangs over the side, only that the study of science doesn’t fully contain the study of science and religion. I want to talk about the particulars of how science and religion debates fall within the realm of the study of science, and how one can inform the other.

Why not? That question leads back to my previous conception of my summer project on the development of biological thought in Pakistan. When I started it, I was vaguely connecting the idea of science and religion with questions about the process of theory choice in science. I read a lot of Kuhn and Kitcher at the end of my semester in Edinburgh, and so theory choice literature was at the forefront of my mind. Only recently did I realize that thinking about science and religion in terms of theory choice was an impoverished line of thought. Whatever PZ Myers might have to say, the relationship between science and religion doesn’t boil down to theory choice. It boils down to interaction and development.

Looking at the Pakistani educational system, it’s hard not to consider science as a cultural force. The institution of science is a cultural force here in the USA, make no mistake, but it’s easier to see such a force when it is perceived as a foreign one. I have a lot of questions relating to the degree to which science is perceived as a foreign culture in Pakistan, but that strays from the topic. I feel like science is a less recognizable cultural force here than in Pakistan, but that might be due to my involvement in the academic community. There are certainly people in the USA who perceive science as something foreign, as well.

Religion, on the other hand, is an obvious cultural force. Christianity is here, and Islam is in Pakistan. There is ostensible separation of church and state in the USA, but Islam is integrated into seemingly every aspect of governance and education in Pakistan. Science, generally speaking, is not nearly so pervasive. So one reason why it doesn’t make sense to characterize the relationship between science and religion as analogous to theory choice is that the two are very different cultural animals.

There are many other reasons why it doesn’t click to put science and religion on par with one another, but this one seems very important for my work. Since science and religion are so different in cultural force, how can the study of religion inform the study of science? Sure, we’ll find something out about science by looking at how people link it to religion, but isn’t this a diminished, diluted kind of study? Why not just study science as science and leave it at that?

To think that way is to think of science and religion as two fried eggs. It’s to think they only touch along the whites, but what we really should be looking at are the unadulterated yolks. It’s to think that somehow only the religious half of science and religion is hanging out the side of the science studies nest. But the study of science and religion is more accurately described as a batch of scrambled eggs where even the yolks have run together.

To study science and religion is not to study an example of theory choice. It is to study an example of belief interaction. Sometimes a person’s religious beliefs supervene on scientific ones, and sometimes it’s the other way around. For my part, I don’t have much in the way of religious beliefs. It isn’t that I see science as supervening on religion, but that I don’t have any religious eggs to scramble with my scientific ones. Most people do, however, and this has an impact on science. Religion has an impact on how science is taught, how science is learned, how the public perceives science, and how science is practiced. So do politics, economics, and a host of other cultural forces. The difference, I think, is that neither politics nor economics engage questions of biology, physics, and cosmology. My seventh grade earth science course didn’t cover how the mining industry influences the direction of geological research, but there weren’t any parents that demanded such material. There are, however, plenty of parents in the USA that demand the teaching of creationism alongside biology.

Just because I don’t have any religious eggs in my scramble doesn’t mean that there aren’t any in the larger pan. The cultural force of religion affects our understanding science. Because of this, an investigation of science and religion is an investigation of the impact of a significant cultural force on science. The interaction flows in the other direction as well, but the mechanics of that interaction is a question for religious studies.

One more thing: this ramble was concerned with the descriptive, rather than prescriptive, characteristics of the study of science and religion. Included with the many other “topics for another time” are my thoughts on how much, if at all, religion should impact science. I think a good description of the interaction will help me understand how the interaction could be improved.

July 9, 2008 at 12:26 pm 4 comments

Prior Probabilities and Culture

I’ve been reading a lot of Hempel lately, in addition to all the articles, essays, studies, and polls on evolution and creationism. Because of this, I have more than the usual blend of 20th century philosophy of science and epistemology brewing in my brain. Anila Asghar and Brian Alters’ study (forthcoming) introduces an interesting situation for probability theory and Bayesianism, on one of its most controversial topics: that of prior probabilities.

In the study, one of the differences between North American Muslim science teachers and their Pakistani counterparts was that of the separation or blend of science and religion in the classroom. Such separation often seems to extend out of the classroom and into personal beliefs. North American Muslim science teachers favor the separation of science and religion, and one interviewee in particular espouses something similar to Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of Non-Overlapping Magesteria. Pakistani science teachers, on the other hand, see no need for such separation. The textbook chapters on evolution begin with Qu’ranic verses, and the provincial standards of education outline the need to teach science within the context of the Qu’ran.

To tie this into contemporary philosophy of science and probability theory, consider the problem of prior probabilities. A brief outline of the problem is this: before we are faced with evidence for or against a theory, we all have our own prior degree of belief in the facticity of the theory undergoing a test. Because these are subjective probabilities, they are difficult to describe. When faced with the results of a test, it’s difficult to see how someone is to alter their subjective probability from the prior probability to the updated, post-test probability. Bayesians have done a lot of footwork around this problem, but not much of it is convincingly conclusive. I’m not convinced of the entire Bayesian program of describing/reconstructing rationality as a series of probability calculations, but those are thoughts for another time.

For now, I’m interested in how the attitudes of the teachers in the study correspond to the idea of prior probabilities. If North American Muslim science teachers really believe in the separation of science and religion, then their prior probability for a given scientific theory should be free of influence from their religious beliefs. But Pakistani science teachers believe in a blend of science and religious explanation, so their priors for a given scientific theory should be influenced by their religious beliefs. If true, this is an important situation that Bayesians need to consider. The same theory is being tested, but there is an explicit religious influence in the prior probabilities of one evaluator and not in another. This is so even though there is great demographic similarity between the evaluators—both are Muslim science teachers of Pakistani descent. The main difference, in many ways, comes down to where they teach. That this should have such an impact on prior probabilities by way of the introduction of a large category of thought in one situation and its absence in another is a large effect for a relatively small difference (or at least a small difference in terms of Bayesian calculations).

I’m not sure how much work Bayesians have done regarding the effects of culture on prior probabilities, but the teachers described by Asghar and Alters make a strong case for its study. It shouldn’t be news that non-scientific beliefs have an different impact on scientific beliefs that depends on cultural context. When reconstructing rationality as a probabilistic process, though, I think this important idea has been largely overlooked. Both Bayesians and their critics should make sure to include this cultural dimension in their probability calculus at risk of obscurity and irrelevance.

July 8, 2008 at 10:37 am Leave a comment


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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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