Critique of Daniel Dennett’s article in the Guardian

I just read this article by Daniel Dennett:

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.


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 (

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 (, Stephen Law (, Mike Rowlands ( 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”!







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!

Hadn’t been for a Portuguese PhD student, Fleming would never have discovered penicillin!

I am a bit tired of hearing about Fleming’s wonderful insight  in the discovery of penicillin. So I decided to tell the real story, so it can remain for posterity and for historians to rectify  the story.

“ Well,  I was a young PhD student at the  Hospital of Madrid” and Fleming was visiting.  I had a bad week since my bacterial colony would not grow. So I went the office of the Director which was my supervisor  to complain about the fact that there were moulds in the lab and they were growing on my plates inhibiting the bacterial growth. There was this English man sitting in the director’s office to whom I was introduced  as a Portuguese PhD student. I learnt that his name was Fleming.

The director asked me to show the Petri dishes and quickly decided that I should  drop  it in the rubbish and start again.  I asked for permission to  change my  PhD line of enquiry and  research why  that blue  mould  which I identified as Penicilium would not let the bacteria grow. The director just said NO and was adamant that I should throw it in the bin.

Then Fleming came to me and asked if he could have a look. I showed him the plates. He asked me if I wouldn’t mind if he kept the plates and took them to England.  Who was I to deny? After all I was just a mere PhD student! So he took the Petri dishes to England and the rest of the story is well known. Hadn’t it been for the stubbornness of my supervisor I would have been to one to have discovered penicillin and get that Nobel Prize. “

Then his face eyes became vacant as if he was  ruminating in that injustice.

I wondered for a bit  if this event could explain the quasi permanent darkness and numbness of his personality. But then I thought that it might be just because he was old and lonely.

Some months later Professor Manuel  Pinheiro  Nunes died. As far as I can remember he might have been as much as eighty something years old (maybe 82) and the year of his death might have been 1979 because this was the last year I was at the Faculty of Pharmacy having changed to the Faculty of Sciences to do Biology.

The night before he died we paid him a visit to check on his heath. He had caught a cold and the  maid was worried. He was in bed, looking very weak and pale. Then he said something like he had the visit of an angel the night before telling him he was going to die. He even commented about the experience saying that since he was an atheist, this angel might have been a creation of his mind.

I wanted to tell this story before I  forgot it. I think this should be included in the history of Fleming’s discovery of penicillin.

As the case of Pinheiro Nunes, I wonder how many more PhD and Graduate students go through similar cases, sparking research ideas on established scientists that end up taking all the credit.

I think that justice must be made to those who are creative and feed the ideas and works of others who later become famous, for without these ideas, they might never have thought about it.,_Manuel_Pinheiro

NOTE: This story was told by an 82 year old man. He  said this happened  in Madrid, but actually he was in Paris at age 32 doing his PhD but  when Fleming did visit Paris during that period.  It is likely that he made a mistake of memory when he mentioned Spain.

At this age memories may get confused in relation to places and times. But I think that the fact the he met Fleming might have remained strongly in his memory and doubting its veracity  it may be out of the question.

Every University Should Offer a Compulsory Course in Critical Thinking

Believing is a natural process of the human mind. Without beliefs we would not make sense of the world. They provide a framework to understand what we see and how do we make sense of it.  It has been argued by some philosophers and shown by studies in animal behaviour that animals- at least higher vertebrates- can also hold beliefs.

Beliefs have been traditionally addressed by philosophy and were defined as follows:  “A belief  is a mental state that predisposes the believer to accept some propositions as being true.” The problem with this definition is that it restricts the concept of belief acquisition to the transfer of information through sentences, as defined by the word “proposition”.  But if we understand proposition as any sort of information acquired by several sensorial means, then the definition can be applied to other animals beside humans.

However for the issue of critical thinking, the definition of belief as presented above is sufficient.

We all form beliefs because people told us things, or in an attempt to understand things we create theories that may explain what we see, hear or sense. Then, we may ascertain that these theories are true and live happy ever after. But what is “TRUTH”?

This is a question that is important to clarify in all areas of human understanding, for differences in what we perceive as being true are the main reason for social aggression. We all assume that what we believe in is true weather it is about common daily life events, or political, religious, social and scientific theories. We fight for what we believe in and in extreme cases, people kill for it.

Critical Thinking is a methodological approach that helps us to decide whether to accept or reject a claim. This method is applicable to mundane issues as well as to academic discussions. It also helps us to clarify the points we want to make and to build consistent arguments. Therefore all academic education should be accompanied by training in critical thinking. For example in scientific discussions, to know how to think critically is the foundation to many other disciplines which span from discourse analysis to statistics. Sooner or later every academic will be arguing for or against a theory of their like or dislike and in these disputes learning how to think critically is an essential part of putting forward an argument. If your argument is badly constructed and riddle with fallacies, it will  easily fall under the  weight of reasons and justifications that make more logical sense.

In my experience lecturing in several countries I have noticed that the not only undergraduate and graduate students, but many lecturers as well, are not trained in critical thinking. This is an anomaly that has been perpetuated by educational systems limited to a transfer of information from the books to the lecturer and from the lecturer to the students which assimilate the information uncritically just to repeat it in assignments and exams.

Universities in the UK insist that lecturers should assess the critical skills of the student and yet few lectures know how to assess it and even fewer students know how to be analytical.  As a way to go around this problem, lectures simply write their questions with the words “critically“in the question. For example, “Present a critical analysis of the argument offered by author of this paper”. Unless you had done a degree a philosophy, few students would be prepared to address the question. Students understand the word “critically” as bashing, attacking or abusing t what the author said, or the author itself.

We do not know what we are missing until we learn about it. For example, I was always very concerned about animals but having been born in a country riddled by ignorance perpetuated by the weight of the Catholic Church, I never knew that there have been philosophers, scientists and laws that shared the same concerns. I felt that I was awkward by the pressure of the beliefs embraced by the society I was raised in. It wasn’t until I left my country that I opened up my horizon and learnt that there was actually a science called animal welfare and many important and intelligent people did share the same type of concerns as me. I did not feel like an oddity anymore, I felt empowered.  As I studied more and more about animal welfare, I became aware of the immensity of the ignorance that surrounded me before.  I made my plea to teach people all over the world, people who cared but felt awkward among their peers, that there are many good arguments that they can use to support their beliefs, that animals and nature should be treated with respect.

We may feel that we are in the right but we may not know how to argue our case. Nobody is born a motivational speaker and much less knowing how to build convincing arguments. Critical thinking helps us to pinpoint the flaws of the arguments we don’t like or even our own claims. But this is acquired skill. We need to learn how to do it. There are analysis techniques that help us to improve our communication skills.

One day, by mere coincidence I picked up a book with the title “Critical Thinking”. I browsed through its pages and I was amazed by the content. It made me realise that there were things that I needed to know about how I interpreted what I read, how I decided what to accept or what to reject and how to pick up an argument that made sense from the range in offer whether they were about politics, ideologies, religion or science.

Critical thinking is a skill that needs to be trained. If we don’t, our intuition takes over rational thought and intuition is not necessarily right. It cheats us to believe in things that seem obvious but are no more than constructs of our own brains. Illusory correlations that suit what we are predisposed to believe in. For these reasons, critical think should be a compulsory discipline in all university courses, enabling the students to learn to think independently and creatively, to assess the good and the bad from other people’s ideas a theories and to make them able to argue for or against those theories.

I have taught some intensive Post Graduate courses at several universities in the UK and abroad. The courses were not compulsory, but the students who attended came out of the course asking for more.  So I decided to create an online  course in critical thinking that  discusses in detail the issues that we only have to time  address superficially in the  intensive courses and workshops. This online course will be available from January 2013. More information can be seen here:










What do I want from a beginners course in Statistics

Sometimes I am led to think that statistics was invented by some ugly sadist who feels a secrete pleasure in making us –normal mortals-feel inadequate.

First let us understand where do I come from. I am a biologist who managed to avoid Statistics courses as much as possible. I ran away from numbers as the devil from the cross! But when I decided to do a PhD I realised I couldn’t avoid it anymore and Stats was something that I had to learn very, very quickly.

Well… I bought a series of books and started reading them, just to reach the end of the chapters on descriptive statistics and put it aside. It was a hopeless battle. I went to some post-graduate statistics courses and again, they could as well be teaching me Chinese!…
I developed a aversion against stats, and an inferiority complex only to learn that I was not alone. Then I started wondering why so many people would feel the same as me in relation to stats. In my carrier I have met many people who completed PhDs in science and still claim they haven’t a clue about statistics.

A opened a statistics book again when I was asked to teach a course on methods in animal behaviour. There were other courses I was happy to lecture, but they came in a package and refusing to teach methods in behaviour would imply that I would not be able to lecture the other issues that I liked so much. So I went back to my search for the perfect book in statistics.

I goggled Statistics for dummies, Statistics with and without  tears,  but nothing!  Attempting to learn statistics alone usually ends up with tears! I couldn’t find a book that answered my questions about statistics. But on day I stumbled on the book by Dytham, C. (2003) Choosing and Using Statistics: A Biologist’s Guide. Blackwell Publishing. This was an great day. The book skips  all the unnecessary mathematical complications on how do we end up in the formulas for standard deviation, Person’s coefficient and so on and instead it focuses  on explaining when and why should we use a particular statistical test .

In fact, this is what I was looking for. I don’t care about how  the formula for a Pearson correlation or the sum of squares look like. I need to know about the sum of squares as much as I need to know the screws and bolts propelling my car. I need a car to go from A to B and eventually I just need to know when to change the oil and fill it up with petrol. I don’t need to know the chemical composition of the oil and where does it go in the engine.

The same way I don’t need a mechanical engineer to teach me how to drive a car I also don’t need a statistician to teach me how do we arrive at the formulae to calculate standard deviations and all other statistical opacities. The only think I need to know is what is the meaning of those statistics. What does it tell me about my data? Do I need to know if my data is normally distributed? Yes… but once I know the answer I just use this information to determine what type of tests should I use to test my hypothesis. I care as much about the formulae that enables me to calculate normality as I care about how to calculate the square root of 456 by hand. This is what calculators and stats programmes are for. We just have to insert our data on a spread-sheet and then click on an off the shelf statistics test included with the package.

To me the goal of learning statistics is not about learning how the test works, but what the results mean. What do these tests tell me about my data? I think this is where people that teach statistics get it wrong. They start by giving us all sorts of unnecessary information that does not provide  much help on how to interpret our data and results. Especially, what we need to know is the meaning of the tables displayed at the end of an analysis provided by the package.

I have questions such as “why are degrees of freedom always presented as n-1?

“Why not n-2 or n-35 for that matter?” .What are degrees of freedom any way? What are they for?

The other problem with  statistics courses is that  they start  without providing an overview of probabilities. And her we are we looking at  something like P<0.05 without having a clue what the P stands for.

Many people just memorised a rule of thumb; if they get something like P<0.05 that is a good thing ! It  confirms what they wanted to prove. This is not good enough!

It wasn’t until I started teaching critical thinking in science, and issues about causal reasoning and bias that I finally understood the philosophy behind the need for statistics.
It felt as if I had been living in a hazy landscape where the statistical formulae where nothing more than the grey contours of trees in the horizon. And now, the sun is starting to shine through the clouds and I realise that those trees actually have green and interesting leaves.

I think that statistics is hated because there are few people who can explain it properly. Statisticians may well know a lot about statistics, but in my experience they have great difficulty in conveying that information to beginners.

My suggestion to teachers of statistics is to start by explaining the principles of the scientific method. Teach first how to generate hypothesis and how and why attempt to refute them.

Many of people I have talked to about statistics, have difficulty understanding that they are trying to  refute a hypothesis. They start their research by wanting to prove that what they believe is true rather than attempting to disprove it.

Actually what we attempt to do with statistics is not to prove that the alternative hypothesis is true, but that the zero hypothesis is likely to be false.

Usually when people start doing research their first instinct is to seek confirmation of their theories and this is the wrong approach. These concepts are necessary to understand even before we start calculating means, medians and modes. They are the framework that holds the whole picture. Otherwise statistics becomes nothing more than some incomplete blots on an impressionist aquarelle.

When I was teaching methods in behaviour a created a power point from the Dytham, C. (2003) book which I gave away to many graduate students struggling with the very same conceptual problems that I had when I stared doing science. I got a positive feedback. Many said that this PowerPoint helped them to put all the tests they read about in papers, in perspective. The slides also provided some complementary help to the book.

The problem with books is that they are static. Especially when they present a load or numbers and graphs. All those numbers feel like visual pollution or like a pneumatic driller in the street  when you are trying to listen to Beethoven. But when we see the numbers and explanations appearing progressively in animated slides and the graphs start taking shape before our eyes then things start making some sense.

This PowerPoint is not yet complete, but I am just giving you access to part of what I have done so far and I would like to ask you if this helps.

Statistical Tests

Clarifying SASHAR

Secularism, Atheism, Scepticism, Humanism, Agnosticism, Rationalism

SASHAR is a made-up word for the six concepts expressed above

When I started to get an interest on issues about religion, I noticed that different concepts were used as equivalent. For example in the atheist literature, it is common to find the SASHAR concepts as interchangeable or equivalent.But things are more complex that that. Here are some definitions that may help to understand the differences and similarities between these concepts:


It is common to hear people referring to secularists as an equivalent of atheism. This is wrong!
Secularism is the concept that government or other entities should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs. In one sense, secularism may assert the right to be free from religious rule and teachings, and the right to freedom from governmental imposition of religion upon the people within a state that is neutral on matters of belief. So the concept of a secular society involves the image of a religion free political and social system. Some ideas of modern secularism were developed by deists.

Deism holds that reason and observation of the natural world can determine that a supreme being created the universe but it does not intervene in human affairs nor suspends the natural laws of the universe. Deists typically reject supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles, tending to assert that God (or “The Supreme Architect”) has a plan for the universe that is not to be altered by intervention in the affairs of human life. Deists believe in the existence of God without any reliance on religious authority or holy book or the need for organized religion.

Secularism is not a modern phenomenon. Its intellectual roots are believed to go back to Greek and Roman philosophers such as Epicurus (341 – 270 BC) and Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD). During the Dark Ages, secularism was embraced by some medieval Muslim thinkers. For example Averroes (1126-1198) a Muslim polymath born in Córdoba (Spain). He is also known as one of the founder of medical principles. But it is during the Enlightenment (18th century) that secularism becomes a widespread ideology promoting the separation of church and state. Many Christians support a secular state.
So to claim that you are a secularist because you are an atheist is a non sequitur, since many believers can also be secularists. However, if you are an atheist you are necessarily a secularist.


Scepticism refers to an attitude in relation to accepting information without subjecting it the scrutiny of reason, rejecting magical thinking, superstition and other irrational beliefs. Experience is often a poor guide to reality. Scepticism helps us to question our experience and to avoid being too readily led to believe what is not so.

There is indeed a philosophical school of thought known as Philosophical Scepticism. Sceptics critically examine the meaning systems of their times, and this examination often results in a position of ambiguity or doubt.

The earliest sceptics can be traced back to Pyrrho of Elis ( about 360 BC) a Greek philosopher who felt uneasy by the disputes between all philosophical schools of his day. According to a later account of his life, he became overwhelmed by his inability to determine rationally which school was correct. Zen Buddhism has also been described as a form of ancient eastern scepticism since it is not concerned with whether a thing exist or not.

Modern scepticism is associated with critical thinking and is one of the ground stones of the scientific method.

Some people, such as scientists for example, can reconcile their belief in a divinity or some sort of magical thinking about the power of crystals and the stars and some dose of scepticism about the events that punctuate their daily lives and the surrounding world. It is like if they compartmentalized their thought process. When they are in the lab they use the principles of scepticism and apply them with minutia to their scientific research, but once their hang their white coat behind the door and go home, leaving their scientific credentials together with heir scepticism in the drawer of their office desk.

Other people apply scepticism to all areas of their lives, making it difficult to accept the existence of entities with magical powers that could have an effect on their decisions and daily activities.

So, one could describe himself as being sceptical, but still accept the probability of the existence of some divinity. This brings us to the definition of agnosticism.


Agnostics are sceptical about the veracity of claims that ascertain the existence of any deity. In consequence, they are also doubtful about the truth of religious and metaphysical claims.
According to agnosticism it is impossible to make any sort of judgments about things that are unknown.

Agnosticism is much more than an attitude towards religion. The very word agnostic means without knowledge (a= without gnosis= knowledge). The word was coined by the English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley –also known as Darwin’s bulldog- in 1869. However the points of view sustained by agnosticism were promoted as early as the 500 years BC. Protagoras (490-420 BC) a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher is usually referred as one of the earliest known agonistics. “He is also believed to have created a major controversy during ancient times through his statement that “man is the measure of all things”. This idea was revolutionary for the time and contrasted with other philosophical doctrines that claimed the universe was based on something objective, outside the human influence” (see Wikipedia).
Agnosticism is the most rational standing when we cannot prove the existence or non-existence of things.
Logically it is impossible to prove a negative, therefore it does not make sense to see proof of the non-existence of something. However we can never be sure that this particular “something” does not exist. For example, until the discovery of New Zealand, Europeans believed that ALL swans were white. If someone suggested the existence of black swans, an agnostic response would sound like this: “ I cannot prove that black swans exist, but I cannot prove that they don’t exist either” . Then they found black swans in New Zealand!

Thus it mean that I could also believe in the existence of rainbow coloured swans? What would be the most reasonable answer?

Religious agnosticism applies the same line of reasoning to the existence (or non-existence) of a deity. Agnostics simply assume that it is impossible to know if God exists or not.

Some people would describe several categories and degrees of agnosticism which would ultimately lead to atheism.

Increasing levels of conviction about the non-existence of a deity.


The difference between agnosticism and atheism is that while the first claims that they do not know about the existence of a deity, the latter are sure that such a deity does not exist.
Nowadays atheism is often associated with the New Atheist movement (which I’ll discuss in detail in later blogs), but atheism is not a recent phenomenon. It was present in Classical Greece when the first philosophers attempted to explain the world in terms of the processes of nature instead of by mythological accounts. The 5th and 4th centuries BC were prolific in generating thinkers with atheistic views.

There are also a number of atheistic religions. They are considered atheistic because they have no God or deities. For example Paganism, Animism and Pantheism are atheistic religions in that sense that there is no personified Gods.
Some religions of the Far East focus on a contemplative life not revolving around the idea of gods. For example, Jainism, a religion believed to have raised about 3,000 BC does not have the concept of God. Other religions such as Buddhism, Taoism and certain sects of Hinduism also offer alternative life paths not cantered on the worshiping of a deity.


The term “humanism” can be confusing because it has expressed and different intellectual movements have been identified with it over time.
Humanism is philosophical school that focuses on human values and concerns focusing on moral virtues such as humanity.

The roots of modern humanism go as far back as to the 6th century BC expressed in an Indian school of thought known as the Carvaka system which was atheist in nature, It did not merely question whether there was a deity, it asserted that there was not!

In Ancient Greece, Protagoras was perhaps one of the philosophers closest associated with the ideals of humanism. During the Renascence and the Enlightenment humanism focused on reforming education promoting rationalism and emphasising scientific studies.
Humanists sought to create a citizenry (frequently including women) able to speak and write with eloquence and clarity and thus capable of engaging the civic life of their communities and persuading others to virtuous and prudent actions (see Wikipedia).
The term humanism can mean several things, but in the modern context of religious debate it is usually perceived as a secular ideology which advocates reason, ethics, and justice, whilst specifically rejecting supernatural and religious dogma as a basis of morality and decision-making. This type of humanism is known as Secular Humanism which congregates people that seek to explain the events of the world through a rational approach.

In recent years there has been a raise in humanist societies and action groups which attract secularists, atheists, agnostics and sceptics leading the lay man to assume that the modern humanistic movement is an umbrella for the expression of atheist ideals.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is an organisation that represents humanist societies spread around the world. The member organisations must abide by the following statement:

Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”


In its modern sense, rationalism is a view that appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification for all claims. According to rationalism, knowledge and truth are acquired through the deductive method. The reliance of this method varies which promotes different degrees of rationalism. For example some philosophers defended that morality was a pure rational exercise, while others accepted the role of emotions in determining what humans may find morally repugnant. So while moderate rationalism assumes that “reason has precedence over other ways of acquiring knowledge”, extreme rationalism claims that “reason is the only path to acquire knowledge”.

The difference between knowledge and information

People often assume that just because someone has managed to go through the perils of a university education and managed to get some sort of degree, they are likely to be intelligent, wise and knowledgeable.

So many times I have heard people appeal to this type of authority fallacy I felt compelled to clarify this misunderstanding.

Dr. X said something pretty stupid, but because he has a degree from the University of Behind the Sunset, then he must surely know what he is talking about.

Such pronouncements are often directed towards people that hold degrees in Engineering or Medicine. These are courses that provide a considerable amount of information useful to do or fix things. In a way, medical doctors (of humans or animals) are a sort of engineers of the body. They identify failures and try to fix it. However the course syllabus is not designed to make students think about issues beyond their areas of speciality. Very few are challenged to discuss the meaning of life or existentialist questions in such courses. Their education is technical and is totally geared up to create an out-put of practical problem solvers. Some students, however, may search for the answer to such complex questions outside the course boundaries, while others are perfectly satisfied with the information acquired during their rapid path through the university.

Another misunderstanding often held by the general public (and unfortunately many academics) is the belief that just because Dr X published 345 papers and one or two books, he may be an authority holding much knowledge.

Well, any idiot can publish a book, providing there is a publisher willing to print and sell it and a range of similar idiots willing to read it. You can either publish about 367 ways of skinning a cat to complex theories about the power of crystals. Among so many published books, there will be of course, a handful that are serious and provide reliable information, or considerable knowledge. My point is that the publication list of an individual is not a reliable measurement for his level of knowledge.

I have seen many CVs with a range of publications which not contributed little to the advancement of science and much less for the advancement knowledge. They may provide information, state the obvious or confirm what other academics suggested before, but they do not necessarily increase the amount knowledge in the world.

The heart of my argument is to make a distinction between information acquisition and knowledge.

Philosophers have debated for centuries the meaning of knowledge and it is not my intention to review the oceans of literature produced to deal with such complex matter. My goal is to claim that just because someone has a degree, it does not immunise him from being a big “ignoranimus”.

Having a data-base of information stored in your mind is not the same has having knowledge. You may have that information and not know what to do with it. On the other hand, some people may not have so much information and still manage to acquire a considerable amount of knowledge. So what is the difference?

To behold knowledge one needs to think critically about the information that competing for our attention. Knowledge in this sense is associated with wisdom, analytical power, critical thinking, and intelligent reasoning.

In philosophy, the word knowledge is usually defined as “justified true belief”. This was the definition suggested by Plato in classical Greece, which held fast until some twenty century philosophers began to question it.

Plato’s definition brings us into a dense forest of complex concepts because it is not easy to determine when a belief is justified and much less to determine when it is true. To complicate things, there is no clear definition of truth.

In my argument I want to make things artificially simple and I’ll take the word “knowledge” as the ability to think critically about the information we decide to accept as plausible.

To acquire knowledge is something that few university courses consider in the curricula. They fill up the student’s brains with information, but during the process there is little time to reflect on how that information was acquired, if it is reliable or plausible. University education becomes then an information gathering process where each piece of information is taken as an unquestionable fact and sometimes even a dogma.

Once in a while some students may rebel against this state of affairs and dare to question their masters. But they will be quickly badged as trouble makes and often ostracised by the system labelled persona non grata. Universities become mind shaping intensive production plants, where the naïve minds of dream seeking youths gets moulded into the levelled evenness of the organisations that shape them. This academic fast production line prevents the inclination of some to search for knowledge creating instead information storing automata.

This brings me to issue about science and religion.

Very often I hear people claiming that so and so is an engineer, a molecular biologist, a medical doctor, or a rocket scientist and he believes on this and that God or follows this and that religion. This is the typical fallacy known as “appeal to authority”. Just because someone acquired a certain level of information about a particular technical issue, does not necessarily mean that his expertise also extends to the understanding of other areas that require similar expertise, as for example evolution, the origin of life or astrophysics.

I am sure most of you would agree that just because I hold a PhD in animal behaviour, it does not give me the credentials to assess the truth of claims about the nature of black holes or relativity theory. I may resort to pop science books to seek a crude understanding of how the universe works bending my mind into mental contortionism in order to understand how space curves and time bends. These are totally counterintuitive concepts that I am ready to dismiss like non-sense… but how am I to argue? I have no expertise to understand it much less to counter-argue.

However, I can say with some security, that I am ready to challenge anyone about erroneous perceptions of evolutionary mechanisms. After all I spent over 10 years studying the evolution behaviour, this would have provided me with some baggage to argue my case.

Now, if you agree that I do not have the necessary background to make any pronouncements on theoretical astrophysics and its truth or falsehood, what makes you think that some people who have degrees in engineering, economics, theology, or even pathology have the necessary know-how to pronounce themselves about the origin of life c and the complex natural mechanisms that shaped evolution?

Some people would claim that they have such and such degree and they are believers in the power of heir divinity to create life, the universe and everything…. This is a non-sequitur –another form of logical fallacy. Just because they have a degree in a particular field of expertise it does not equip them to critically address the mechanisms that influenced the origins and evolution of life.

To say that “ I am an engineer and a believer” is as valid as to say that I am Portuguese and I have gremlins living in my garden pond. One does not follow from the other. The information and technical knowledge one gains from being an engineer contributes little or nothing to assess the plausibility of a belief in a metaphysical divinity.

To have a degree is not synonym of knowledge. And to be able to question the plausibility of our own beliefs requires much courage and knowledge.

Any person willing to invest a bit of time acquiring and memorizing information can have a university degree. You just need persistence and a lot of patience to study for long hours so you can pass the exams. A degree is not a sign of knowledge, much less of wisdom, and does not have much influence in determining what types of myths do we choose to follow.
I see no difference between an engineer who has chosen to believe in the healing power of crystals, a biochemist that choses to belief in the powers of the flying spaghetti monster in predicting the future, or a doctor that believes in the power of prayer to a divinity to cure his patients. [Actually I must confess I would feel very uncomfortable to trust my body to a surgeon that relies on the power of a deity to cure me. If the surgeon does not trust his own skills, I am certainly in danger of becoming prey of hazard! It is like driving a car with closed eyes hoping God will guide you through the bends of the road]. The aforementioned beliefs share a common feature; they are impossible to justify as true.

A knowledgeable person is one that is carefully submits their beliefs to the critical scrutiny of deductive and inductive reasoning. A knowledgeable person would be aware that there are very few truths we would be willing to give our lives for. In the words of Bertrand Russell “I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong”.

So what is the point of this whole argument? Very simple; avoid appeals to authority to justify your own beliefs, especially if these so called authorities are flashing diplomas and certificates in areas that have little relation to your belief system. Instead of resorting to experts irrelevant to your cause ask yourself if there is any rational justification to support your beliefs and take them as true.

The ignorance of religious leaders towards the role of marriage

The UK government has plans to legalize gay marriage and the church of England reacted against it claiming that it would “alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as a union of a man and a woman“.
Again, one more example of the ignorance propagated by religion.
The institution of marriage exists to ensure paternity of the offspring and inheritance of the parental resources by those who carry the genes of the father.
In the animal world, where sexual reproduction occurs, behaviours have evolved to prevent parental investment in non-genetically related offspring. In mammals, there are no doubts about the identity of the mother, but there is no way one can be certain who the father is, thus males have evolved different types processes to ensure their paternity and that their energetic investment in feeding the offspring or leaving them their territory is not wasted in impostors.
Some insects leave post copulatory plugs in the female, others have specially adapted penis to clean the female from previously injected sperm. In many other species of invertebrates and vertebrates there is the occurrence of sperm competition where the presence of special sperm cells has been identified which fight and kill foreign sperm, and many males adopt a mate guarding behaviour, remaining closely beside the female until the offspring is due.

Mating Blue Monkeys ( Arkive Images)

Social monogamy is present in less than 3% of mammalian species

In mammals, less than 3% are monogamous. This is because internal fertilisation and incubation prevents the males from spreading their genes while the female has its womb occupied. Thus the males around will attempt to reach as many vacant females as possible while they are undergoing oestrus or their fertile period. Mammalian species may present social monogamy, but not genetic. This means that while some pairs may seem to stick around each other for long periods of life or even their whole life, in reality they are fooling around with others. This behaviour is in fact advantageous to both of them. Whereas female increases the genetic variability of her offspring, the male spreads his genes in as many fertile females as possible.
Since humans as mammals, and certainly NOT members of those 3% monogamous species, social and cultural evolution invented rules to ensure that the offspring of a man would be genetically related to him at the time they are to inherit the father’s property.
Marriage is about protecting investment and property, not about reproduction between a man and a woman. The Church of England and all the other religions for that matter, should pull their acolytes from the depths of ignorance and send them priests to biology classes.
The argument of the Church of England “the intrinsic nature of marriage as a union of a man and a woman” is a dangerous one as it could be extended to “the intrinsic nature of marriage as a union of a man and a woman where the man has all the rights to rape the woman and beat her up so he can ensure production of children”.

My message to the Church of England: Isn’t it about time you start learning some real scientific facts and stop promoting dogmatic lies?

There is no such thing as intrinsic value

In the animal rights debate it is frequent to hear arguments that refer to the moral value of animals. Thinkers, for and against compare the value of animals and humans back and forward in all possible and impossible situations. Philosophers search for characteristics that provide moral value to an entity and compare it to human traits .

Since classical Greece to the present traits such as the soul, the mind, language, emotions and rationality have been used to establish differences and similarities between humans and other animals.

The general line goes on claiming that humans have intrinsic and moral value because they hold a particular number of aleatory characteristics listed according to the preference of each philosopher, thus if any other creature is found with the same list of traits, it should also be given the same moral consideration. This argument has many flaws which I will enumerate here:
1. There is no clear definition of intrinsic value
2. Why do the listed traits present in humans should have more value than other traits present non-human beings?
3. A great ignorance about animal behaviour and cognitive psychology from the part of  some philosophers wrongly identifies traits as “exclusively human”
4. Some traits attributed to humans are no more that wishful thinking based on improbable ideals. (e.g. the idea that humans are rational).

I argue here with base on biology that the concept of moral value is no more than a creation of the mind as much as fairy tales and has no material reason to exist. In later postings I discuss the other three points.

 What is value?

In biological terms value is everything that is important for the survival of an individual or its genes. A habitat has value for the organisms that live in it and exploit it, since it supports their individual existence. An individual of the opposite sex has value as it represents a contribution to the propagation of genes in sexual organisms, and the offspring has value as it continues the genetic pool of the reproducer. Value only exists insofar there is an “evaluator”; a living being that needs the resource.
Philosophers would claim that I am describing the concept of instrumental value which I would fully agree. This is precisely my point! There is no such thing as intrinsic value. All value is instrumental as it is given to an object or entity accordingly to its utility.
Even humans, only have instrumental value because their presence in social groups is useful for the protection of each individual that comprises the group. A human has value because it contributes to the group. And I am not referring exclusively to material contribution. I include also contributions of a more spiritual level.
In a biological perspective useless humans have no utility value. A society accepts a number of free-riders as far as there is a surplus of resources and they do not put a toll on the needs of contributors.
Free-riders are all those who take advantage of the benefits of group living without contributing to it. Children and old people are not free riders because the first are an investment in the future and the later had already contributed with their investment to what the group is.

Some humans may be so handicapped that they have no way they can contribute. Care for persons with such high level of dependency is only possible in societies where resources allow for a moral code that proclaims that all humans have the right to life. But such moral codes are only prevalent in industrialised societies where the state provides for the common good. In less wealthy societies, mentally and physically impaired people are either exterminated or hidden away in the most appalling and inhumane conditions left to die.
Just do a survey of how many mentally and physically impaired people are supported by communities living in extreme poverty and you get my point. Caring for those with extreme handicaps I a luxury that only wealthy states can afford. Where resources start running low, a sense of injustice raises in the contributing population. Many of these who have abstained to have children because of their lower incomes, feel exploited and treated unfairly when the state provides support to multi child households where nobody works and live from social welfare.

Nobody talks about these issues openly because they are afraid of being knocked on their heads by the censorship hammer of “political correctness” . Just because people don’t openly proclaim their feelings about injustice, it does not mean that they do not experience the sense of unfairness.

However an despite some feelings of injustice many humans ( many other non-human species ) seem to engage frequently in behaviours protective of free-riders whether they are human or not. A pet is also a free- rider. What value has my cat but just eats a sleep and allows me to pet her?

The value given to these free-riders is not derived from their intrinsic value , but it is a consequence of that biological property known as empathy.

Empathy is the result of a complex network of neurons communicating between the limbic system and the cortex. It is the result of a cocktail of neurotransmitters that enables us to feel sorrow and compassion, willing to help and provide care. It activates our sense of fairness and repulsion for gratuitous cruelty. The biological trait empathy is what leads us to give intrinsic value to the animals and humans in need or caught in the chains of suffering and injustice.

As in every biological population, organisms vary and in our case some people are more empathetic than others, extending their feelings to universes varying in size and content. For some, their universes only include humans, while for others they may also include furry four legged creatures and in many cases they may even exclude humans from the realm of moral value. Some only include those who look racially or culturally like us, whilst others may include everybody in the world.

Philosophers and religious people have tried to develop normative theories of value and impinge them as moral guidelines for desirable behaviours but, fortunately or unfortunately , they have not succeeded to make them universally accepted. This is because such theories ignore natural behaviour.

Many religious and normative philosophical schools may well claim that it is wrong to kill, however religious leaders have been famous for inciting their followers to slaughter those who did not share the same beliefs. In this selective slaughter some humans have less value than others.

Moral value, as moral rights are intellectual entities which only exist in the creative minds of intellectuals. They are not real, not universal nor objective.

Does this mean that we have nothing to explain why we give moral consideration to others? No…

We do have many biological reasons that explain our need to cooperate and help others. These traits have evolved in social animals because they were useful to their own survival inside the group. The reason we care for injured or feeble minded conspecifics is no different from why a pack of wolves would care for a companion injured during a hunting exercise, or dolphins engage in rescuing humans from drowning. None of these animals, including humans, do this out of philosophical concepts known as moral consideration or intrinsic value. They do it because their brains are programmed to act empathetically whether they are conscious of it or not.

Small children when given an injured animal have a tendency to care for it. Some do more than others. Others don’t do it all. This reflects the variability in degrees of empathetic behaviour that can be found by the multiple brains in the population. Human capacity for empathy ranges over a line that goes from overwhelming empathetic others to cold emotionless psychopaths. Even cruel Nazi mass murders had empathy towards their close relatives and their pets.

It is time to accept that the concept of intrinsic value does not bring any clarification to the argument of moral consideration. It confuses more than clarifies it.

There is no such thing as “we ought to give moral consideration” to this or the other. Who tells us what we ought? From whose authority?

The only ought is the one that comes from nature. We ought to display behaviours that contribute to harmony in the social group. The social group is where we are inserted and provides for our survival. It does not matter the size, the race or the species integrating that group. This means that we ought to help others, to be fair and just, to prevent cruelty, to avoid in any way to upset the balance of what gives as life, including the environment and all the other creatures that are part of that habitat.

Similarly, there is no such thing as moral rights. Rights are not particles that fall from the cosmos and bestow some of us and not others. We do have a duty to avoid harming others for no reason. But we do also have a duty to harm others if they threaten our own survival and upset the balance of justice.

Human concept of justice, as in many other species, are based on the principle of merit and tit-for-tat. Reward the co-operators and punish the abusers or all those who contribute to upset the balance of our social context through greed, injustice and meaningless cruelty.

Back to where I started. What does it all have to do with animal rights?

Since I deny the concept of intrinsic value as a reason to give moral consideration and rights, it follows that applying the concept of rights to animals as well as to humans makes no sense. However we should seek support in our biological capacity for empathy and repulsion of injustice and apply it to our fellow creatures. One should not be apologetic for our empathetic feelings hiding them behind abstract idealistic intellectual creations with no more empirical support than a fairy tale.