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Natural Selection • The Sanctity of Tissue • Let Us Suffer If We Want • Intentions versus Promises • Course Pleasures • Scientists Need Philosophy

Natural Selection

SIR: In response to Fred Leavitt’s excellent article defending natural selection against the charge of being a mere tautology with thus zero explanatory power (Issue 28), I’d like to add two points. Firstly, criticising the catchphrase “survival of the fittest” for saying that the fittest are defined as those who survive, thus rendering “survival of the fittest” into the agreed tautology “survival of those that survive”, does not do credit to modern evolutionary biology. Sterile workers in the colonies of the social insects have evolved because the sterile worker’s fitness has been increased not through increased survival (and concomitant reproduction) of individual workers, but because the worker can help propagate the genes carried in its own body by helping copies of the same genes carried in the bodies of its kin; in such cases of kin selection, whilst direct fitness may be reduced, inclusive fitness is increased. And regardless of this point, “survival of the fittest”, a phrase not even coined by Darwin but by Herbert Spencer, does not capture in any way the totality of modern evolutionary biology and is a fairly trivial statement to criticise. Secondly, the principle of natural selection is not a tautology, given that it rests on three criteria about the actual state of the world being fulfilled, as argued in Leavitt’s article: there must be variation in the traits of organisms in a population; the traits must be to some extent heritable; and there must be a difference in survival and reproduction associated with different trait variants. These three conditions, which have been empirically confirmed to exist in the world, then give rise, inexorably, to evolution by Darwinian natural selection, but not in a tautologous manner. Rather, natural selection is an algorithmic process which generates adaptations to real-world problems when the three starting conditions are in place, and is not confined to the evolution of carbon-based organisms who use DNA as the hereditary material. The appreciation of the universal nature of Darwinian natural selection is not useless tautology, but a fundamental insight into the workings of the natural world.


The Sanctity of Tissue

SIR: Though, as always, largely sympathetic to Stephen Clark’s position in ‘Proper Sentiment and Human Cloning’ (Philosophy Now August/September 2000), I was puzzled by the claim that human tissue or organs should be treated with respect. (I read it on the day I was due to have a selection of warts removed). When my grandfather lost a leg on the Somme, should the leg have been buried with full military honours? Perhaps a Jewish reader can tell us whether the millions of foreskins are accorded the appropriate rites.


Let Us Suffer If We Want

SIR: Professor Richard Taylor’s exposition of Peter Singer’s views (Philosophy Now August/September) does them little service by oversimplifying the issues.

A philosophy which is based on “the incontestable observation that suffering is evil, wherever it exists. We ought, therefore, to reduce it where we can.” would conclude that marathon running should be banned, along with all other personal disciplines involving the choice of some suffering in the pursuit of a chosen goal. Clearly the observation is contestable because I have a right to choose to suffer. (A masochist would even claim the right to enjoy it.)

The oversimplification is compounded in the article because the examples conflate the suffering of the ‘victim’ with the suffering of those caring or observing or of the relatives. His Alzheimer patient may not experience themselves as suffering; the justification for allowing them to die if they catch pneumonia would be their diminished humanity, the poverty of their experience of life. His example suggesting withholding antibiotics from infants born with spina bifida must have appalled many people afflicted with that condition at birth but living fulfilled lives ( and their parents). As soon as they are aware of their own condition the person to choose the life, which may include incontinence and periodic suffering, is the ‘victim’ themselves. It is not the ‘sanctity of human life’ which argues against the evil of suffering in such a case, it is the principle of respecting the person’s right to make their own choices, the sanctity of the human spirit.

Taylor claims an ethical foundation of “the pursuit of virtue and fulfilment for ourselves.” He prefers that to Singer’s ethic embracing concern for our treatment of others. Where is the virtue in denying the physically impaired person the opportunity to choose their own fulfilment if their life includes suffering and promoting premature death for them”


Intentions versus Promises

SIR: Although I enjoy reading Joel Marks’ Moral Moments column, I believe his article in Issue 27 is confused. In equating intentions with promises, Mr. Marks makes the two indistinguishable, effectively eliminating any need at all for talk of promises.

However, I find this highly counterintuitive. Consider the following scenarios:

I am sitting with my housemate just before leaving for work. I express an intention by saying, I am going to walk to work. In response, my housemate may naturally say, Oh, no, I can give you a lift in my car.

Again, I am leaving for work, but this time I say, I have promised to walk to work. Although my housemate may be curious as to whom and for what reason I have made this promise, I doubt he would offer me the lift. He would recognise that a promise differs from an intention.

Surely we are not obligated in the same way to keep an intention as we are to keep a promise. If so, why do we feel a need to make promises at all, if a mere intention does the same job? But just because intentions do not carry the same level of commitment as do promises, this does not eliminate commitment entirely from intention, for presumably there is a minimal requirement of honesty – that an intention is, indeed, an intention. But we all would be continually disappointed if we were to consider all intentions as promises (“But he promised!”), and we would be distrustful if we considered all promises as intentions (“Well, he may or may not keep his intentions!”).

I would only take issue with the baseball coach if he had deceitfully expressed a false intention and didn’t really mean it at the time. Otherwise, happy moving!


Course Pleasures

SIR: Your magazine indicates various ways in which philosophy enthusiasts can communicate with each other – events, lectures, groups etc. I would like to add the residential courses which are held at Schumacher College in Devon (Tel. 01803 865934). Most are about ecological or spiritual topics, for example ‘Complexity and Chaos’, ‘Ecological Economics’, or ‘The Place of Ritual’. I have attended several courses there and I can recommend them to any readers who appreciate an attractive rural environment, good (vegetarian) food, stimulating company from all parts of the world and extensive opportunities, both formal an informal, for philosophical discussion.


Scientists Need Philosophy

SIR: My response to the Science versus Philosophy round table debate in Issue 27 (which was great and very illuminating) is that the simplest and most important perspective was barely touched on and should be emphasized. Philosophy is (or should be) the search for truth by trying to incorporate all human knowledge and beliefs to some extent into an overall framework of ideas that logically holds water. In the sense that everyone does this to some degree when they naturally go through the process of establishing their individual ‘world view’ (however limited) from everything that they are exposed to in life, everyone does philosophy. Therefore at the individual level, these scientists cannot help but do science within the framework of philosophy, whether they like it or not! This is the most fundamental answer to the question “given the success of science, do we really need philosophy?”, because no individual could even function enough to do science at all without his/her own uniquely acquired philosophy, or world view. Additionally, as was pointed out repeatedly in this debate, philosophy in general has historically gone before science in general by outlining fuzzy areas like consciousness before the scientists can dive in and objectify them.


SIR: It is interesting that the debate about whether we really need philosophy as a form of knowledge, given the success of science, is conducted in the context of philosophical language.

Philosophy helps make science relevant to the real world through operational philosophy’, explaining and putting theory into practice.

But, then, science opens up new venues for philosophy to study such as the ethics and morals of genetic engineering. These two disciplines in essence constitute a tag team. However, they are autonomous entities, standing free of the other’s purpose. And it is essential that they do, for in their discourse they add to the polemic content, the paradox, that energizes, facilitates and sustains our world.


SIR: I would like to respond to some comments by Lewis Wolpert in the Round Table discussion of philosophy and science in the June/July edition of Philosophy Now. He stated that Karl Popper is the most over-rated philosopher of science of the millennium, “and all philosophers agree with that.”

The reason that Popper is underrated by philosophers is that he has parted company with at least three of their major assumptions and preoccupations. 1. The justification of knowledge by authority. 2. The theory that scientific knowledge is a form of subjective belief. 3. The analysis and refinement of concepts.

With this in mind it is possible for open-minded philosophers and outsiders to understand the real differences that divide Popper and his followers from the bulk of the professionals in the field. When these differences are explored in a critical and imaginative way, in relation to real problems in science and society, I suggest that Popper will be better understood and better appreciated.


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