Monthly Archives: May 2013

Critique of Daniel Dennett’s article in the Guardian

I just read this article by Daniel Dennett:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/may/19/daniel-dennett-intuition-pumps-thinking-extract

Although Dennett is one philosopher I admire, I think that he builds this piece on  some mistaken assumptions which I would like to pinpoint here:

Critique 1

I know of no evidence to suggest that any other species on the planet can actually think this thought. If they could, they would be almost as smart as we are.

Just because he knows of no evidence it does not make this assumption true. Think of black swans! It just  states that he is ignorant about the existence of such evidence.

Critique 2

The natural human reaction to making a mistake is embarrassment and anger “

He restricts the trait to humans. This is obviously an assumption without support. I have observed animals making mistakes and  displaying behaviours of embarrassment. For example. Several times I have observed cats who miss their jump and fall short of the target. When they reach the floor they look at me ( the  human “mother” ) with “embracement” .

Now you are right to  challenge me about the word “embracement”.  How do I know that they are embraced? Am I not  making anthropocentric projections (oh that sinful A. word!!!).  The only thing I can say is, I have observed two outcomes of cats successfully jumping and reaching the  target as well failing the target. The post-jump behaviours are different. In the successful  jump they don’t check the reaction of the human observer, in the second ( failed jump)  they look at the human as to check if we were looking and usually they run away as if in “shame” for the failure. I am the first to admit that these observations need statistical data for support.

Critique 3

Then Dennett goes on claiming that

This, by the way, is another reason why we humans are so much smarter than every other species. It is not so much that our brains are bigger or more powerful, or even that we have the knack of reflecting on our own past errors, but that we share the benefits our individual brains have won by their individual histories of trial and error.”

First he assumes that humans are smarter. Well ! I would challenge this. He needs to define what he means my “smart

Then he makes a lot of assertions  about the size of human brains. I agree that bigger brains are not correlated with intelligence, however it is not the absolute size of the brain that is important, but the relative mass in relation to body mass.

Second he claims “why humans are so much smarter than other species ….(is) that that we share the benefits our individual brains have won by their individual histories of trial and error”

Wrong again! There is a thing called cultural transmission in social animals. The learner observes the practices of the demonstrator which have been perfected by trial and error. The learner can also observe in the very process, instances of error and learn how to avoid it. ( think of apes using tools, not to mention corvids and dolphins)

My warning to distracted readers: Beware of philosopher’s assumptions about the animal world. Just because they wrote books and are famous, it does not mean they have the authority to fabricate assumptions to suit their arguments.

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My love–hate affair with philosophy

I live in a love-hate relationship with philosophy. Being a biologist I was trained to dismantle the whole, study the parts and rebuild the whole again. It is a rational process similar to reverse engineering.

We ask ourselves what the mind is. Then we look inside the brain, take it apart, observe how each part works, put it back together (hoping that the brain does not behave like an Ikea wardrobe) and in the end we realise that we’ve got some screws left and we don’t know what they are for.

This process helps us to understand the anatomy and associated mechanisms of the brain, but does not explain the epiphenomena produced by the brain. It does not explain what philosophers call “the mind”, “consciousness”, “sentience, and so on.

We know what emotions are, how they are formed, the neuronal pathways that guide serotonin and other neurotransmitters that enable our brains to expel emotions.

Then we feel these emotions, we evaluate them, we submit them to the scrutiny of our ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) and take decisions.

Should I beat up my partner because he is drooling over the sight of a well-shaped woman, or should I damp down my primeval instincts? Depending on how well my VMPC works, I will control my behaviour and eventually rationalize it at such a level that it will control my own emotions.

In animal welfare science we distinguish emotions from feelings. Emotions are physiological responses that we have no control over; feelings are the conscious acknowledgement of our emotions.  Emotions such as love, jealousy, rage, are physiological expressions that are aroused by internal and external motivational triggers outside our control, but the behaviours that we choose to display, are under our voluntary control.

Now, what does it all have to do with philosophy?

Philosophy is seen as a non-go area for science students. I have only the philosophers to blame for this. Why do they have half a page to define something that can be described in a 3 line paragraph?

Philosophy helps us scientists to frame questions in interesting ways. Philosophers came about with ideas about philosophy of mind and scientists devised methods to understand it collecting empirical data that can eventually confirm (or not) philosophical speculation.

But philosophers are also so bloody complicated with the use of their intricate language and cloudy speculations on hypothetical “state of affairs”! Some of their “thought experiments”  would never occur in this planet. So I ask myself, why do these guys complicate what is simple?

See for example the trolley problem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem).

How many people would find themselves in a situation where they are happily walking over a railway line which is precisely on a track bifurcation and are surprised by the sight of  5 people stuck to one  track an 1 person stuck to  the other? Perhaps if they lived in Calabria or Sicily in the Mafia infested territories, this wouldn’t be surprising at all. But would they dare to take action?

Anyway, the trolley problem is interesting to test what would we do in such hypothetical situation. People would respond differently whether they have to choose between letting one person die to save the other five (the utilitarian approach) or killing one  very fat person throwing him of the bridge to stop with its 200kg of superfluous blubber the rampant approaching train to save 5 people  from dying (deontological approach).

The trick of this exercise is in the understanding of the words “active killing” and “let die”. Without the help of philosophical analysis I might never have understood the point of this exercise had I not been aware of the philosophical difference between “killing” and “let die”.

This is also important in our attitudes towards animals. When I ask a vegetarian if he would eat a steak, he would refuse the offer because he assumed that the steak comes from a cow that was “killed” specifically for making stakes. But some vegetarians would claim that they would take the offer if I offered them a road kills for dinner, say a pheasant that just fly crashed against my car while I was driving home.

I love philosophy precisely because it helps me to analyse an argument from many different perspectives. When we are science specialists we often fail to see other points of view outside our narrow filed of expertise, but do philosophers have to make so dammed complicated? For goodness sake! Have a grip!…

I ask myself if moral philosophy is meant to help humans  to make ethical decisions, or at least to help us to justify our  decisions, shouldn’t this tool come with easy to read instructions manual?

Philosophers should rethink their writing style and present philosophy more like an Ikea guide chart than a manual to the installation of Windows Server Networks.

If philosophy becomes an infinite argument among a closed exclusive club of philosophers where only 5 understand what the heck they are talking about, what is the point of it?

However, and thanks the flying spaghetti monster for that, there is a breed of philosophers who seemed to have recognised this danger and  are actually striving to bring the wonders of philosophy to common mortals like us simple students of science.

People like Julian Baggini (http://julianbaggini.blogspot.co.uk/), Stephen Law (http://stephenlaw.blogspot.co.uk/), Mike Rowlands (rowlands.philospot.com) made philosophy an enjoyable pursuit accessible to the general public.

If S.J. Gold, R.Dawkins, E.O.Wilson  are the kings of pop science, Baggini, Rowalnds and Law are certainly the cardinals of pop philosophy.

I love these guys. I am always recommending their books to my students.

I just wish that university science departments followed in their steps and brought in compulsory subjects in critical thinking, philosophy of science and ethics to the laboratory benches.

Philosophy is not boring, but some philosophers can make it really inedible just like vegetables in English cuisine!…Some writers seem to be more preoccupied in showing off their literary prowess than to communicate clear ideas. How frustrating !!!!

The K.I.S.S.  rule ( keep it simple stupid!) is  one of the first rules taught  to science students when they start  writing about their subjects. In philosophy the rule seems to be,” regurgitate the whole Oxford English Dictionary collecting as many tautologies as possible”.

Green Energy? “Not in my backyard”!

Park4

 

 

 

 

 

The English are funny people! They go around complaining about the total disrespect for  the environment shown by other countries, offering unrequested moral lessons, telling them how they should live their lives.

The poor countries  spread rubbish all over the place.  The developing countries destroy their forests with pasture for grazing cattle, monocultures of palm trees or soya beans, destroying our planets biodiversity.  The Americans and the Chinese pollute our skies with their energy consuming  SUVs and polluting plants.

The English agree that something must be done to save the planet. After all it is OUR planet. Their forests provide the oxygen that we all breathe.

The English  agree that alternative energies are the way to go.  Governments should invest in more wind power and solar plants. But they forgot the little detail that in order to do so we need land. Land that should be far and away from their own  back yards. Preferably in other people’s backyards, or countries.

Why would they embrace such contradiction?

Because a solar plant damages their views of nicely manicured agricultural land, equally infested by boring monocultures of wheat and rape.

Wind farms make a lot of noise which disturbs the quietness of their summer BBQs  and solar plants reclaim land that otherwise could be used for pesticide laden agriculture.

British democracy requires that local planning decisions that may affect the status quo of a community must be taken by a local authority which comprise the elected representatives of the people. The diversity of representatives implies that more frequently than common sense would require, there are some people whose main goal is just to oppose whatever is being discussed.

If the subject is to put a wind farm nearby their village, they will automatically be against it.  If the aim is to prevent it, they will fiercely take the view that they need a wind farm nearby as it improves their economy and brings more jobs.

They will always find arguments to support any contradictory views.

I ask myself why are these people so stubborn and narrow minded.

I imagine that such characters are unhappy, unloved , annoying members of the community  with not much to do but going around pointing out to their fellow residents that the shape of their garden fence or the colour  of their windows does not comply with planning regulations. Then they are elected to some council of representatives, and from mere ignored and annoying  little nobodies they  become power holders who can tell the others what to. This feeling of having power is hallucinogenic. A drug that activates the reward systems of their brains. Their pleasure is activated by the level of annoyance they can promote on their fellow villagers. They have been ignored and laughed at, now there is time for revenge. You tell them what to do!

Envy and hypocrisy is a characteristic of human nature, and it ubiquitous in the English culture.

Ask any of these councillors what they think about promoting a cleaner environment through the expansion of green energy and they are all for it, but way from their homes. The problem with SOME (too many)  English people is that they pay lip service to green ideas, but abstain from deploy them in their own country.

The “not in my backyard” attitude of the English is no more damaging than ignoring the energy challenges of modern world.

Talk without action is not going to contribute to the promotion of green policies. Agreeing with the promotion of green energy and at the same time opposing the expansion of green energy parks is plain hypocrisy.

This is a battle between the personal interests of half a dozen of people who happen to have a cottage in the country (the value of one’s house, the aesthetical value of a landscape) against the interests of all living beings in the planet.  Got it? On one hand  the personal interests of few, on the other the whole biosphere. This is a no brainer! This is plain hypocritical selfishness.

Someone has to start somewhere, and if England wants to influence other countries to take similar steps towards a better planet, they have to start by cleaning their own house. The English need to lead by example not by hollow rhetoric!