Category Archives: philosophy

A healthy attitude towards quantum mechanics

Credit: xkcd.

Apparently the above quote “You can safely ignore any sentence that includes the phrase’ according to quantum mechanics” is used by Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharf  in their upcoming book The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty.

Good advice.

What makes something right or wrong?

Here is another of the  4 animated videos produced by the British Humanist Association. They are all narrated by Stephen Fry.

This one deals with aspects of morality – an important subject where the voice of non-theists is often ignored.

“What makes something right or wrong?” Narrated by Stephen Fry 

See: That’s Humanism: Four animated videos about Humanism narrated by Stephen Fry

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How do we know what is true?

The British Humanist Association has produced 4 animated videos explaining humanist ideas. They are all narrated by Stephen Fry

Here is one that particularly appealed to me – “How do we know what is true?.

See: That’s Humanism: Four animated videos about Humanism narrated by Stephen Fry

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Another god debate


Apparently Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig went head to head this weekend on the question of “the existence of God in light of contemporary cosmology.”

Usually I think these sort of debates are a waste of time but am keen to see the video of this one – it will be on Youtube eventually. In previous debates Craig attempts to use cosmology to “prove” the existence of his god (I use the word “use” as meaning very opportunist use of motivated reasoning). In most debates his opponents are usually not completely familiar with modern cosmology and he gets away with murder in his misrepresentation of the science.

But Sean Carroll is a different proposition. Not only is Sean a researcher and teacher in cosmology he is also an excellent communicator of science. His recent bookThe Particle at the End of the Universe, won last year’s Royal Society Winton Prize for best science book (see The particle at the end of the universe’ wins Winton Prize).


Nor is he intimidated by Craig’s acknowledged debating skills. He says in a blog post before the debate:

“You can find some of WLC’s thoughts on the upcoming event at his Reasonable Faith website. One important correction I would make to what you will read there: Craig and his interlocutor Kevin Harris interpret my statement that “my goal here is not to win the debate” as a strategy to avoid dealing with WLC’s arguments, or as “a way to lower expectations.” Neither is remotely true. I want to make the case for naturalism, and to do that it’s obviously necessary to counter any objections that get raised. Moreover, I think that expectations (for me) should be set ridiculously high. The case I hope to make for naturalism will be so impressively, mind-bogglingly, breathtakingly strong that it should be nearly impossible for any reasonable person to hear it and not be immediately convinced. Honestly, I’ll be disappointed if there are any theists left in the audience once the whole thing is over.”

I think his tongue was in his cheek with the last sentence.

His suggestion for viewers:

“Feel free to organize viewing parties, celebrations, discussion groups, what have you. There should definitely be a drinking game involved (it’ll be happy hour on the West Coast, you lightweights), but I’ll leave the details to you. Suggested starting points: drink every time WLC uses a syllogism, or every time I show an equation. But be sure to have something to eat, first.”

Thanks to God and Cosmology Debate with W.L. Craig

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All things bright and beautiful

Testing the God theory

I enjoyed this video.

It is a full lecture but well worth watching – especially if you are interested in the science-religion debates.

Sean Carroll presents these cosmological arguments well – and his analysis is far more up to date – and “with it” than those theologians who venture into the area. Just compare this with the rubbish W. L. Craig comes out with.

This lecture really puts the theological argument that God is a “better explanation” of life than the multiverse into perspective.

Thanks to Your Thanksgiving viewing « Why Evolution Is True.

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‘The particle at the end of the universe’ wins Winton Prize

Congratulations to Sean Carroll – the winner of the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for science books.  (see Higgs boson book scoops Royal Society Winton Prize).

His book, The Particle at the End of the Universe, beat 5 other excellent titles. and the Judges were unanimous in their decision.

The book was also recently reviewed by Richard Easther on SciBlogs (see The Higgs, the Universe and Everything).

I was very impressed with his last book, From Eternity to Here, so I am very much looking forward to reading this one.

Here is a short video of Sean reading from his book before the announcement.
‘The particle at the end of the universe’ by Sean Carroll.

Sean Carroll is a great science communicator. He participates in, and organises, some great on-line discussions of science and philosophy. He also manages a  science blog  – have a read of his own comments on the Winton Prize. In these he reminds us not to forget the other excellent books on the shortlist:

I wouldn’t have wanted to be on the prize jury, however. All of the six shortlisted books are fascinating in their own ways, and at some point it’s comparing apples to pears. I wouldn’t have been surprised if any of the other contenders had walked away with the trophy:

These books are also being reviewed on SciBooks. See Birds’ Own Stories Captivate for a review of Tim Birkhead’s book.

The recent Science Weekly podcast has a great discussion of all the books shortlisted for the Winton prize. In it two of the judges speak really enthusiasticly about all these books – and some that didn’t make the shortlist. Really makes we want to get all the books on the list and get stuck into reading them straight away.

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Word of wisdom, and otherwise

Dara O’Briain and Frankie Boyle on religion and creationism

The comedian Dara O’Briain is a real gem. I was pleased to see him mentioned in this weeks NZ Listener – with some of his great sayings. How is this for words of wisdom about science:

Dara Ó Briain

“Science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise it’d stop. But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.” NZ Listener issue 3835

Now just for contrast – here is something from a local leader of an anti-fluoridation group:

Mary Byrne

“Why would you rely on the so-called experts when they have already been proved to be wrong? and if you rely on the experts then what are you promoting? just someone else’s views, what is the point in that. Plus that sounds like religion to me.” Facebook comment.

Funny thing about these people who dislike science so much – they are always cherry picking a little bit of science, removing the context and qualifications and then presenting it as their alternative. As Dara would say – their “fairy tale.”

Sin is relative

Love this photo I saw on Facebook – actually says a lot about the nature of morality as it is often practiced.

Credit: Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc.

Moral animals

I am spending some time dealing with family business so I am reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days. These could be useful with Christmas coming up.

Here’s a book for lovers of animals – and philosophy. But also for those who are willing to delve into the evolutionary origins of human morality.

Book review: Can Animals Be Moral? by Mark Rowlands

Price: US$29.95; NZ42.99
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (November 1, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0199842000
ISBN-13: 978-0199842001

Interested readers need to know – this is a book about philosophy, not science. I guess this makes the book more interesting to philosophers than scientists. And some familiarity with the philosophers whose arguments the author quotes and criticises will add to that interest.

However, Rowlands does not ignore the science. He refers to the scientific evidence for moral considerations by non-human animals (see video below for an example). A plus in my view as some philosophers seem to happily debate these sorts of issues without relying on any empirical evidence at all. But, as a philosopher, Rowlands assumes “only that the evidence makes a prima facie case for the claim that animals can be motivated to act by emotions—all   species of concern—that have an identifiable moral content. This assumption is the point of departure for the arguments to be developed in this book.”

Rowlands is also very clear from the beginning that his answer to the book title’s question is definitely “Yes.” He describes the purpose of his book this way:

“I try to show that the blanket dismissal of the possibility of moral action in animals cannot be sustained because it rests on certain assumptions that are controversial and would be rejected by many, often the majority, of philosophers. Essentially, the blanket dismissal requires that one be willing to pitch one’s tent in certain philosophical camps—camps in which many, perhaps most, philosophers would not be seen dead. Second, and equally important, I shall try to show that there are indeed good reasons to eschew these camps.”

Apparently, among philosophers, Rowlands’s view is a minority one:

“The history of philosophy has reached a near unanimous decision on the central question of this book. No, animals cannot be moral. They cannot act for moral reasons, or on the basis of moral considerations.”


“The positive goal of this book  is to show that animals can be motivated by moral concerns, and these concerns take the form of emotions that have identifiable moral content. The corresponding negative goals of this book are to show that the respectable reasons against this claim fall far short of   compelling, to unmask confusions, and to banish the fruits of magical thinking.”

I won’t go into the philosophical details but Rowlands argues for animals being moral because they can act on the basics of moral emotions. They have feelings and emotional reactions to situations and acting on these is enough for acting morally. But he acknowledges that emotions and sentiments are not the only sorts of moral reasons there are, saying, “I certainly would not object to the claim that there are moral reasons available to humans that do not reduce to emotions or sentiments.”

Moral agents and moral subjects

This leads him into definitional issues. We consider moral agents, moral subjects, etc. Moral subjects can act on the basis of motivations such as emotions and feelings. But a moral agent has the ability to reflect on these motivations and actions, can explicitly formulate or understand the principles behind the action and may be able to adopt an impartial perspective of the sort required for a sense of justice.

“All moral agents are moral subjects, but not all moral subjects are moral agents.”

Rowlands sees many, particularly social, non-human species as being moral subjects. But only humans have the ability to reflect, deliberate and consider abstractly, to be moral agents.

Many of the philosophers Rowlands argues against will demand that morality requires more self-awareness and abstract consideration than we normally consider possible by non-human animals. Thereby restricting morality to humans. However, research into human morality show that rational consideration and abstract thought occurs very rarely in moral situations. In fact our reactions have to be almost automatic and unconscious, as there just isn’t time to apply abstract thought or consult holy books and learned papers in ethical journals. If human animals relied only on rational consideration and abstract thought for their morality the species just would not have survived.

Using this book’s terms in many ways and many situations humans, although capable of moral agency, will behave as moral subjects. Rowlands discusses this in his philosophical arguments and provides explanatory examples. But this could have been helped by the scientific evidence showing that a lot of human moral actions are unconscious.

The continuity inherent in an evolutionary understanding of animals blurs customary distinctions between human and non-human animals. It’s therefore not surprising that moral concerns, emotions and feelings as a major reason for action are shared by human and non-human animals.

Moral autonomy – a degree of agency

Even among humans the degree of moral agency can vary. Some individuals may be more morally autonomous than others. They may often indulge in abstract moral reasoning, discussion and reading. They may possibly consciously reject some contemporary moral ideas and values. Other individuals may not be so reflective. Their rational consideration may be restricted to rationalising the automatic behaviour they exhibit. And they may be more unquestioning of the contemporary social mores and customs. They may even be willing to rely on social and religious authorities as the source of their moral values. Moral agency for many humans may be more potential than actual.

“A stronger view might claim that one possesses moral autonomy only when one is actually engaged in these processes. That is, moral autonomy turns on the exercise of the ability and not simply possession of the ability. This view entails that humans are morally autonomous individuals only on relatively infrequent occasions— and that some humans are, perhaps, never morally autonomous.”

Moral learning, or training

The book does not really discuss the way humans learn their morality during their development, or manage to adjust their moral codes to accommodate changing social values. Not surprising as it is about non-human animals. But it does discuss briefly the somewhat equivalent role of training that can influence those non-human animals who live closely with us. Some of this training can involve moral concerns – such as where pets are taught to be careful with young children.

Given the continuity of life inherent in a scientific evolutionary view  a continuity among different animal species in their moral instincts and concerns is not surprising. This supports modern changes in the way we consider non-human animals. Rowlands reflects this with the last sentence in the book:

“If animals can, and sometimes do, act for moral reasons, then they are worthy objects of moral respect. That is why it matters.”


I give more credence to scientific findings than philosophical deliberations. However, these are interesting in this case – even if more for characterisation of different philosophical schools. But while such deliberations may well appeal to the philosophically inclined by their very nature they usually cannot settle the argument. At times I felt the book had a tendency to philosophical argument at length where reference to empirical evidence may have sufficed.

Another criticism I have is the occasional use of Latin terms without definition. And use of philosophical shorthand not usually familiar to the lay person.

However, I felt the author’s presentation is careful. He gives reminders of his own position from time to time so one is not trapped into thinking he is advocating another position when he is merely outlining opposing arguments. This is helpful to the reader.

On balance I think the thorough philosophical consideration in this book does complement other, scientific, texts. For example, consideration of differences between moral subjects and moral agents provides a clearer picture than use of terms like “pre-moral” which authors like Frans de Waal and Michael Shermer have resorted to when describing the moral behaviour of non-human animals. Rowlands provides a philosophical clarity to the scientific findings.

Capuchin monkeys reject unequal pay

See also:
Scientist argues that animals are moral creatures
Can Animals Be Moral?

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An aside – philosophers who naively use science

Rowlands does not distort the science on this issue – he uses it honestly. Some philosophers are not honest when discussing issues related to non-human animals. They can resort to subtle differences in definition – even to motivated reasoning, usually to support their own bias. W. L. Craig’s recent attempts to claim that non-human animals might feel pain but don’t suffer is a rather blatant example. He misrepresents the science in his justification – claiming humans are the only animals with a pre-frontal cortex necessary for the self awareness required to experience suffering. (Misrepresenting science so as to use it as “evidence” for his religious and supernatural beliefs is a common trick of Craig’s as anyone familiar with his treatment if cosmology knows). Craig also relies on selective definitions if awareness, self-awareness and suffering to bolster his argument. (See this video for details).

Can animals suffer? Debunking the philosophers who say no, from Descartes to William Lane Craig

This cartoon seems relevant.

(Thanks to Jerry Coyne – William Lane Craig argues that animals can’t feel pain)