Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard

I would like to recommend two books I just read: Christopher Janaway on Schopenhauer and Patrick Gardiner on Kierkegaard, both in the Oxford series of Very Short introductions. Both are very well written, clear and informative, as well as off the beaten track. I was particularly interested to read Gardiner’s book as I knew him at Oxford when we both examined the John Locke Prize together and found him quite remarkably likable. He was by no means a central figure in Oxford and kept his distance from philosophical fashion, but he should have been regarded as something of a treasure, given his areas of expertise. I should have made an effort to get to know him better.

Tennis Again

I just watched Goffin beat Federer in the end of year tournament in London. It’s amazing that Roger can play this well at 36, but David simply outplayed him. Roger’s smile across the net at the end was classic. I’m 67 and I play a guy who is 29–the number one player in Cuba in fact. Boy, can Javier play! He is a beautiful player–fast, solid, spectacular (handsome and nice too). I love playing with him. Of course, I seldom win a point, but that doesn’t matter: I can enjoy playing high-quality rallies with him. On Thursday I played perhaps the best tennis I have ever played in my life with him. This is a nice feeling. I recommend it.

Philosophy of Food

Something different.

 

 

 

 

Food and Philosophy

 

 

Are there any hitherto undiscovered branches of philosophy? There must have been a time when no branches of philosophy had been discovered, back in prehistory, and then gradually the field formed and spread itself. Now we have numerous fields and sub-fields of philosophical enquiry, from the basic curriculum to philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology, philosophy of art (painting, music, architecture, literature), philosophy of religion, philosophy of sport, philosophy of sex and love, philosophy of film, philosophy of society, philosophy of logic and mathematics, philosophy of history, feminist philosophy, and many others. Is there anything that there is no philosophy of? There is not (yet anyway) a philosophy of geography or geology or botany or bottle washing or haberdashery. But for there to be an undiscovered branch of philosophy three conditions would need to be met: (a) it must be undiscovered, (b) it must be genuinely philosophical, and (c) it must not be already subsumed by an existing branch. Condition (c) is the important one: there must be new and distinctive issues raised by the field in question—not just the same old issues restricted to some specific subject matter. Thus it is hard to see how geology and botany could give rise to a new branch of philosophy, since they are already subsumed by philosophy of physics and biology. Some overlap with existing fields is to be expected, but there has to be something new and exciting about the candidate field. It must also, presumably, be important or central in some way (so not like stamp collecting or orchid raising—though these can be important to particular individuals).

It is extremely difficult to identify any such neglected field of philosophical enquiry. The ground seems remarkably well covered. Of course, each area may contain many undiscovered truths or arguments or issues, but there don’t seem to be any obvious candidates for an undiscovered branch of philosophy. The tree of philosophical investigation seems to have a complete set of branches. This itself is an interesting meta-philosophical fact: we have achieved full philosophical coverage of reality, after a steady expansion of the philosophical mandate. We have completed the map. But wait: there is one area hitherto undiscovered: the philosophy of food.[1] This subject is sufficiently important, distinctive, and unexplored that it may reasonably be added to the list of branches of philosophy. In what follows I will explain why the philosophy of food deserves our attention and outline the kinds of issues that are raised by this nascent field.

Let us begin with some semantic and definitional matters. Semantically, “food” is a mass noun, as are many words for the different varieties of food: “sugar”, “meat”, “flour”, “bread”, “gravy”, “curry”, “butter”, etc. These words denote types of stuff, like “coal” or “snow”. The word “meal”, however, is a count noun, which is why we can say we have three meals a day (but not “three foods a day”); similarly for “breakfast”, “lunch”, and “dinner”. The word “eat” is a verb of action and so can be adverbially modified (“eat slowly, at midnight, etc”). Much eating is intentional but some may be sub-intentional (like absentmindedly sucking on a sweet); and some may be involuntary, as in forced feeding. One eats (action) a meal (entity) that is made of food (stuff) of various types: so far, so straightforward.

But how is “food” to be defined? The OED says: “any nutritious substance that people eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth”. This is not circular because it is possible to eat things other than food: one might eat sand or cement. It sounds a bit iffy to say that people can drink food, but one sees the point of talking that way. An objection may be raised from intravenous feeding: here food may be ingested, but it is not eaten (the OED defines “eat” as “put (food) into the mouth and chew and swallow it”). What if there were a species that only ingested food in intravenously, never by orally eating? The addition of plant absorption indicates the need for a broader definition than just oral consumption: sunlight and water can be plant food because plants absorb these “nutritious substances”. If animals did the same, not using their mouths at all, they would still be ingesting food. The key idea is that food is a nutritious substance that is taken into the body in order to sustain growth and life. One might also quibble about the dictionary’s use of “nutritious”, objecting that people often eat food that is not nutritious (“junk food”); but here the meaning is not that the alleged food is not nutritious at all—it certainly contains calories—but rather that it is not good for you if eaten to excess. To count as food a substance has to be in some measure nutritious.

The word “meal” is not so easy to define. The OED has “any of the regular daily occasions when food is eaten”. But can’t you have a meal at an irregular time during the day, or in the middle of the night? Does this definition imply that the only meals there can be are breakfast, lunch, and dinner? What about a person who works the night shift? What about someone who eats nuts and raisins at hourly intervals and nothing else? Do animals have meals according to this definition? A meal is best understood as a portion of food that is consumed at a particular time—so you have no meals if you graze continuously all day (unless this is viewed as one long meal had before going to sleep). And how do we define “breakfast”? Not by the type of food consumed, nor by the time at which it is consumed (a person on the night shift may have breakfast at 7pm). Rather, as the word suggests, breakfast is best defined in terms of proximity to sleep, during which one is effectively fasting. Lunch is then defined as the meal one has following breakfast, when hunger has built up again, and similarly for dinner. We could just as well speak of “meal 1, meal 2, and meal 3”. Nothing is to stop you from eating roast turkey for breakfast at 11pm and cereal for dinner at 10am, semantically speaking.

What about the metaphysics of food? Here one can envisage two schools of thought—the objectivists and the subjectivists. The objectivist holds that food is an objective mind-independent category—the stuff consumed considered in its intrinsic nature. The subjectivist, by contrast, holds that food is constituted by its relation to the organisms that consume it—food is what is consumed as food. The latter school insists that nothing counts as food unless it is eaten by some organism, so the flesh of a deer is not food if there are no predators around that eat deer. Other food metaphysicians might maintain that a kind of stuff is food if and only if it is potentially edible: but they run into problems specifying what kind of potentiality they have in mind—isn’t everything potentially a constituent of food for some conceivable organism? Then there may be those who think the whole notion of food is confused or unscientific, so they propose to eliminate it from their conceptual scheme. There might also be food projectivists who subscribe to the slogan, “food is in the eye of the beholder”. Thus disputes in food ontology will rage as elsewhere in philosophy.

There are also metaphysical conundrums such as whether any proper part of a meal is itself a meal, or whether the elementary particles that compose food are themselves food, or whether the Sorites paradox can be applied to the concept of a meal (a crumb isn’t a meal, and the addition of one crumb to something that is not a meal will not produce a meal, so there are no meals). What should we say about Martians who eat only rocks and acid, finding what we call food quite indigestible and vile? Are they eating food or not? Should we say that what counts as food is entirely species-relative? That sounds reasonable enough, but then what do we say about a species that eats rocks with gravy on, where the gravy has no nutritional value for them (but rocks do) and serves only to enhance taste—is the gravy food for that species? Also: is the color and shape of the food part of the meal, or the plate the food is on, or the way the food is arranged, or the waiter who serves it? These are certainly aspects of the gustatory experience. If you re-heat a meal, is it the same meal you had yesterday? What if you combine it with some new ingredients? What are the criteria of identity for meals? Are different courses really separate meals eaten in quick succession? When does a meal cease to exist—once it is inside your stomach or when you start chewing it or when you excrete it? Is a meal an artifact, like a table, or a natural object, like a tree? Those fascinated by such conceptual questions could have a good time discussing them and arguing vigorously with their metaphysical opponents. I envisage symposia and special journal issues. Debates could be punctuated with actual eating.

Other philosophers might wish to focus on normative questions relating to food. Here there is a rich field of enquiry that I can only gesture at. Are there any foods it is morally wrong to eat (e.g. animal products)? Is the eating of humans always wrong? Is gluttony really a sin? Are some foods inherently more virtuous than others? Is natural food always better than artificial food? Should one use food as a source of comfort? Is obesity a moral failing? Is bulimia necessarily unwise? When is dieting excessive? Is it OK to love food? Is it a good thing to be a foodie? What is more important, taste or nutrition? Is cookery an art or a science or a practical skill? Is it possible to describe a meal as beautiful? How often should one indulge oneself when eating? Do some foods have an intrinsically superior taste that everyone should try to cultivate (oysters, asparagus, truffles)? Is it better to eat alone or in company? What constitutes the perfect meal? What is the role of disgust in eating? How much should we be concerned about the hunger of others? Is fasting morally uplifting? Is it good to have food taboos? Should the good life center on food? Is the value of food like the value of sex? Is there anything spiritual about food? Should food be spicy or bland? What is the right way to appreciate food? What should we expect from food–health, happiness, or just absence of hunger? How much of our income should we spend on food?

These questions are specific to food, so they meet one of our conditions for being a bona fide branch of philosophy. They are also not easy to answer, which is another desirable feature in a philosophical question. They are about the role of food in living a good human life, both morally and prudentially. Given that people often have a problematic relationship to food, it would be useful to be able to think more clearly and articulately about it. Rational reflection is power. Food can make people feel conflicted and confused, and philosophy might help with that. One needs to eat with a clean conscience, but the pleasure of eating should not be compromised by doubt. We obviously care about food, for all sorts of reasons, but food is difficult territory. So this is a branch of philosophy that can be expected to have clear practical applications.

Lastly, what about the language of food? What are our food-related speech acts about? We say things like, “You should try this” or “This tastes good” or “Mm, delicious!” These are clearly evaluative utterances, and hence invite the usual types of philosophical interpretation. Are they fact stating or expressive or prescriptive or something else entirely? They resemble moral utterances with respect to the theoretical options. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the words have a solid basis in the objects in question: foods have certain objective features that determine them as good or bad. It is not that we merely imagine them as objectively good or bad, or project goodness or badness onto them. Foods are good for us or they are not. So this is a type of evaluative discourse that seems firmly anchored in hard fact. It would be difficult to be a relativist about the value of food, since food either nourishes or it doesn’t: if for some reason you arrive at the belief that coal is good food, you will soon learn the error of your ways. So “This food is good” has a strong claim to objective truth (at least once we specify an eater); it is not a matter of debate or disputation. It can be verified by straightforward experiment.

Food is clearly central to human (and animal) life, it is conceptually intricate, and it raises challenging philosophical questions. It overlaps with other areas of philosophy, but it has a sufficiently distinctive identity to lay claim to being a branch of philosophy in its own right. One can see how a university course on the philosophy of food could be constructed, and it might be more engaging than the standard fare offered to students. It supplies ample “food for thought”—and that phrase too raises interesting philosophical questions. Is philosophy itself a type of food for the intellect, to be absorbed and digested by the mind? Does it nourish thought and give it life? If so, philosophy itself is a sub-field of the general philosophy of food. There is food for the body and food for the mind, and philosophy is a type of mental food. Thus there can be philosophical feasts as well as thin philosophical gruel, and a hunger for philosophical knowledge, indigestible philosophical arguments, and philosophical theories that are hard to swallow. A question in the philosophy of food is therefore whether we can conceive of philosophy as food. If we can, is it a different type of food from that associated with other fields of learning? I look forward to some interesting dining experiences.

 

Colin McGinn

[1] Since writing this, I have learned that I have been scooped, by David M. Kaplan in The Philosophy of Food (2012), and possibly by others. I take this as confirmation of my thesis that the philosophy of food is a bona fide branch of philosophy, to be recognized as such. Of course, philosophers have written about food over the centuries in one connection or another, but the philosophy of food is not generally recognized by mainstream philosophy as a genuine branch of the subject. One can write a book entitled The Philosophy of X without that amounting to a serious branch of the subject, to be set beside the branches already recognized. I contend that the philosophy of food is such a branch, not merely a subject matter to which philosophical reflection can be applied (as in the philosophy of wine or the philosophy of fashion or the philosophy of flowers). No doubt those who write about the philosophy of food seriously would agree (and would chide me for being late to the party, or dinner). In any case, the field already exists, if only in marginal and fledgling form. My question then would be whether we have now exhausted the subject of philosophy: are there any undiscovered branches left? I rather doubt it.

Disgust Again

I thought this was a good and useful review (from Metapsychology 2012).

The Meaning of Disgust
by Colin McGinn
Oxford University Press, 2011
Review by Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D.,
Mar 6th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 10)

Colin McGinn’s recent new book, The Meaning of Disgust, sports a tempting enough title to lure the curious reader to join in its painstakingly detailed study of an affect, which has received comparatively little serious attention throughout the history of philosophy, despite the fact that disgust has obvious implications for ethics and politics, as well as for other philosophical fields. Thus the reader may well dive into this book with an enthusiasm that seems to gainsay the repugnance of its subject. Nonetheless, after but a brief ramble into the work, the paradox clearly dawns in the reader’s awareness: the study of disgust is disgusting!

McGinn must therefore be heartily congratulated, not merely for his authorial skills, which endow The Meaning of Disgust with the usual sound qualities of any fine book–it is well written, well organized, clearly and rigorously argued, and thorough and comprehensive in its detail–but for maintaining the internal fortitude to abide so long among the loathsome subjects of his study that he is able to produce from his gruesome ruminations a well-crafted book. Since the reader (at least at first) can barely choke down a chapter or two without seriously considering turning back from her journey, McGinn promptly appears as a knight of great courage, for fencing with things so disagreeable and staying his difficult mission.

McGinn first draws out a detailed analysis of the class of things that people tend to find repulsive, in an effort to get at their “essence and significance.” Here we meet up with rotting corpses, human and animal, in various stages of putrefaction, and the variegated changes in texture, color and smell that comprise the gruesome transformations of the rotting flesh. We discover that the usual fearsome culprit is not solely at issue here; it is not the fact of death, plain and simple, reminding us of our own immortality, that most noticeably gives rise to disgust, but what appalls us most is the intrinsic perceptual condition of the rotting flesh or gangrenous limb, even when no threat of death is imminent. Indeed, this insight clarifies why people are so fascinated by zombies, lepers and vampires; the rotting but still-living corpse that moves about and thus might come into direct perceptual contact with us–might touch us!–is one of the most repulsive objects of disgust. Other categories of objects that elicit the disturbing affect are bodily excretions and bodily wounds, such as lesions and lacerations.

Dear reader, are you feeling it yet? The opening catalogue of disgusting things that supply the study-and-gag matter of the book drags on and on in gruesome detail until it arrives at a startling conclusion: disgustingness is not, McGinn determines, a matter of individual taste, not a merely subjective quality projected onto undesirable things, modifiable by knowledge or belief or erasable by will power. Disgustingness is not a “secondary quality, defined dispositionally” (p. 61). Rather, McGinn argues, disgustingness is an objective property that inheres in the thing’s phenomenal quality and that reflects a general human attitude toward the biological world. “Things are therefore not disgusting simply in virtue of the fact that people take them to be, with possibility of equally correct but different modes of taking” (p. 62). Things are disgusting because we are self-aware beings who recognize ourselves as rot-worthy, decay-destined, smelly, fleshy bodies.

Having arrived at the apex of all this disgusting study, McGinn draws a parallel between disgustingness and funniness: a joke is not funny because people laugh at it; they laugh at it because it is inherently funny. McGinn’s “hermeneutic psychology” of disgust thus lands the reader in a rather funny place, after all its repugnant effects. He shows us that the discomfort we feel around disgusting things emanates from the disgust that we feel toward ourselves as organic biological beings, who for all our lofty ideas and intellectual pretensions, are just animals, after all, and subject to death and decay. Disgustingness is the very stuff of which we are made, but this is what we most frantically try to keep hidden. This is the reason that disgust often gives rise to comedy; laughter declares and releases our embarrassment around the knowledge that we most deeply, biologically, are–beings that are inherently disgusting.

Having surveyed the great variety of objects that provoke disgust and analyzed them in their revolting essence, McGinn proceeds to determine the most viable “theory of disgust” that keeps faith with his working hypothesis regarding the essence and nature of the disgusting. Mapping the terrain of disgust theories, from Taste-Toxicity Theory (Charles Darwin) to Foul Odor Theory (Aurel Kolnai) through the Life Process Theory (William Ian Miller) and the Death Theory (Ernest Becker), McGinn settles on the Death-in-Life Theory, an amendment to the simple death theory which confirms his earlier hypothesis–that death presented in the form of living, moving tissue most essentially captures what we mean by disgustingness, because it describes the dreadful transition, the ambiguous territory between life and death.

McGinn then, quite brilliantly, proceeds toward the book’s conclusion, illuminating the connection between the fact of our general disgust for our vulnerable, lowly, organic bodies, caught in the human condition that ultimately gives us up to putrefaction and death, and the whole range of practices, ideas, and traditions associated with cultural life. Clothes, technologies, societal prohibitions and proprieties, seduction and courtship rituals, love, humor, swearing, art and (of course) religion represent some of the plethora of cultural forms that have arisen as we human beings struggle to cope with our disgustingness and “bracket” it long enough to permit a limited easiness around, and a forgetting of, our fragile organic nature. Disgust, it turns out, “plays a vital role in many cultural formations, powering and shaping them” (p. 225).

So buck up, hardy reader. Pull on your Wellies and wade right in. This book, which at first will revolt and repel you, is well worth the early nausea. It launches a look into the world of human affect not for the faint of heart, but critical to understanding ourselves and the development of our cultural mores. Moreover, it offers a logical opening into further compelling studies, including disgust’s implications for ethics and politics.

© 2012 Wendy C. Hamblet

 

The Sermon on the Mount

 

Is there any evidence of Jesus’ divinity in the passages known as the Sermon on the Mount? If his moral teachings reflected some kind of divine infallibility, we would expect these teachings to express the most advanced morality possible. We would expect Jesus to be a moral sage. And if we found such an advanced morality in his reported words, that would be evidence of his divinity, since only a godlike being could so transcend the morality of his time and place. On the other hand, if his recorded sayings were merely banal or erroneous, that would undermine his claim to be the Son of God. So, how good was Jesus as a moralist?

There are two sides to the question: what he said and what he didn’t say. He said nothing about issues of the utmost moral importance, still less say what needs to be said about these issues. He never says that slavery is an abomination or that capital punishment is wrong or that a man should not beat his wife or that abusing animals is wrong or that racism is bad or that homosexuality is not a sin or that children should not be flogged. These would have been sayings revealing a remarkably advanced moral intelligence, quite out of step with the assumptions of the time, indicative of divine insight: but Jesus says none of these things. Is that because he does not believe them? Or is it that he does believe them but is reluctant to speak his mind for fear of seeming too radical? I think it is evident that he doesn’t say them simply because they have not occurred to him: that is, he has no source of moral insight beyond that of his particular time and place. His moral thinking is not shaped by access to an omniscient and morally perfect God but by prevailing norms. What he says positively is a mixture of oddity and common sense: for example, “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5.31); “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough troubles of its own” (5.32); “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown in prison” (5.25). These are hardly the remarks of a deep and insightful moral thinker: they are highly contestable and advance no radically new vision of morality. He also reiterates the point that you should not advertize your good deeds to others for their approval, because God is always watching you and he will reward you for them, which seems to take back what it enjoins.

But there is one passage that has caught the imagination of generations and is often regarded as the heart of Christian teaching, viz.: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” (7.38) This passage does indeed stand out for its novelty and radicalism, and it has the form of a general ethical stance not just advice on practical matters. But it is surely unacceptable as a moral directive: we should seek to prevent evil not tolerate it. Jesus says we should turn the other cheek when slapped—does he extend this doctrine to punching and stabbing? How many times must one invite further assault—until the point of death? If you are against acting violently on principle, what about just running away? And what if the person assaulted is not yourself but (say) your child: should you advise your child to turn the other cheek when slapped in front of you? Should you allow the slapping to go on unimpeded? Shouldn’t you at least remove your child from danger? What precisely is the point of encouraging more evil from the evildoer? Should the legal system contain no discouragement to evil? Should the police turn the other cheek or decline to defend someone who is being assaulted? What if it is just a simple matter of saying, “Stop that”? Jesus baldly asserts, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person”: isn’t that the worst advice possible? Of course we should resist evil—evil is precisely that which should be resisted! What is he thinking—that the evildoer will feel ashamed if we offer him our coat as well as our shirt? What if he doesn’t? Jesus seems to be suggesting that we should not even rebuke bad actors, that we should actively encourage people to exploit and abuse other people. Why is this good? He doesn’t say. What would a society be like that offered no resistance, or even rebuke, to those bent on evil? Should rape be followed by an invitation to more rape? If someone murders your sister, should you suggest murdering your brother too?

True, it is good to minimize violence, but Jesus goes a lot further than that: he seems to be advocating a bizarre kind of masochism. So this directive is simply not defensible as a moral principle. Nor does he offer any justification of it. I really have no idea why he would assert such a thing—it certainly doesn’t strike me as a profound moral insight. I can’t think of any moral thinker before or since who has advocated such an extreme form of moral passivity: even when it would be easy to prevent evil being done, we are enjoined to make no protest and take no preventive action. Presumably Jesus thinks we should praise and encourage good action, but he seems to be against criticizing and discouraging bad action. Nor is it easy to see how this position is consistent with his readiness to insist on other injunctions: he is quite happy to tell people what not to do in matters of divorce and oaths and giving to the needy, so why not tell people not to slap you for no reason? He never says anything expressly against violence in the Sermon on the Mount, but it is surely not his position that we should actively condemn adultery but not violence: all immoral acts should be condemned. Sound morality tells us to prevent evil acts, but Jesus explicitly rejects that idea. And it isn’t that he thinks that non-resistance in the face of evil will lead to less evil–he is not being a peculiar kind of consequentialist. He is not recommending non-violent resistance to injustice but simply non-resistance, non-complaint. Does he think (implausibly) that this will reduce the amount of evil in the world? Or is it that he thinks that we will get our reward in heaven so we need not worry about evil on earth?

All in all the Sermon on the Mount is a mishmash of antiquated, peculiar, and dubious pronouncements, asserted without justification, and often quite opaque in meaning. It is hard to see how these “teachings” could be regarded as evidence of divine inspiration—they show no special moral acuity.

 

Explanations of Life

 

 

 

 

Explanations of Life

 

 

Suppose we encounter life forms on another planet unrelated to ours and possibly quite unlike ours. Still, there is evident adaptive complexity, so that the laws of physics and chance cannot explain what we observe. What possible explanation might be given for this complexity? How might it have come to be?

One possibility is intelligent design—not by God, to be sure, but by scientifically advanced aliens. These organisms might have been synthesized on a Life Production Machine. They are in effect artifacts of another civilization, so the explanation of their existence matches the explanation for the existence of artifacts in our civilization: intentional intelligent design. We can’t rule this explanation out; it is a matter of empirical fact whether it is true (just as it is for life on earth). We might well gather further information that rules out the hypothesis (there is no such advanced civilization in the vicinity), but as a matter of principle the hypothesis is a theoretical possibility—it cannot be excluded a priori. Alternatively, the life forms might have arisen by ordinary natural selection with no intelligent intervention. But there are also mixed cases: the organisms might have been subjected to guided breeding after a period of natural evolution, or they might be genetically engineered and then left to natural selection. Conceivably they might be selectively bred from an initial batch of bacteria, so partly the result of natural design and partly of intelligent design. There is an indefinite range of possible combinations of natural evolution and guided evolution, varying between species and planetary fauna—for instance, the mammals have been left to natural selection while the reptiles have been intensively bred for intelligence or strength. Maybe elsewhere in the universe all the possibilities have been tried—as is partially the case on earth where humans have artificially bred certain species but not others.

The traditional theoretical dichotomy between intelligent design and natural selection may be quite parochial where advanced civilizations have developed, because there is ample scope for partial intervention into the process of generating life. Selective breeding and genetic engineering can certainly speed up the evolutionary process considerably, taking decades to achieve what natural selection would take millions of years to achieve. When intelligent life forms take evolution into their own hands the sky is the limit. Naturally evolved life might be the most primitive form of life, vastly outclassed by the kind of life created by life itself, i.e. designed by life forms with the intelligence to change the course of evolution. No need to wait for that lucky chance mutation; just create whatever mutation looks promising and then subject the result to rigorous test. Just as bacteria look very primitive in the light of later evolutionary developments, so naturally evolved life might look very primitive compared to the kind of life that intelligent designers can contrive. If the secret to the origin of life is ever discovered, it could be used to re-start the entire process, producing untold wonders by creative intervention. All of life could come to be intelligently designed.

Interestingly, the possibility of intelligent design depends upon antecedent natural design: not every life form in history could be the result of intelligent design, since an intelligent life form has to come from somewhere. No universe could create intelligent life ab initio: the long and painful process of natural selection has to create the first form of intelligence, since intelligence cannot depend upon other intelligence all the way down. But once a form of intelligence has evolved that is capable of selective breeding and guided evolution, it can produce new life forms without reliance on the old machinery of blind random mutation and natural selection. Then the explanation for the design of organisms will involve intelligent design not natural design. Most of the life in the universe might be of this kind: whole galaxies could be inhabited by intelligently designed organisms. Geological time is vast but cosmological time is much vaster, so the possibility of intelligently designed life coming to dominate the universe can’t be ruled out. We might be just at the beginning of the history of life—the short initial period in which life evolved naturally. Already we are beginning to change the course of evolution; genetic engineering could accelerate this process enormously. Other intelligent species elsewhere might be much further along in imposing their will on nature.

If a Charles Darwin is born on a planet that has been subject to intelligent design, he will hit upon the correct theory of evolution for that planet, namely evolution by intelligent design.[1] Maybe life was seeded naturally by the accidental arrival of bacteria, but then intelligent creatures stepped in to guide the course of evolution, creating whatever organisms took their fancy. A rival theorist who hypothesized natural selection as the explanation would be mistaken; there was, on this planet, an intelligent designer responsible for the adaptive complexity on display. Natural evolution could have ended millions of years ago, with all life now the result of intentional intervention. The traditional Darwinian theory used to be true, but it is no more: everything is now carefully monitored and cultivated. This is what is taught in biology classes these days, and it is entirely correct. All genetic alteration is brought about by scientific intervention, so that nothing is left to chance; then certain strains are chosen for reproduction and others rejected. It is as if the old religious creationist story were true, only it is not a divine being calling the shots but a super-alien. On our planet now Darwin’s theory is the true theory, but on other planets the theory of intelligent design may be the true theory (and may come to be the true theory on our planet). There might come a time when none of the species inhabiting the galaxies evolved by natural selection. That was just the early phase in the history of life, and destined to be superseded by intelligent design. Evolution will cease to be blind.[2]

 

C

[1] His book On the Origin of Species defends the view that all life results from the intentional actions of a mighty intelligent designer. This Darwin might not know the identity of the designer—that was not discovered until space travel became a possibility centuries later—but he was brilliant enough to see that no other explanation could be true given the facts. Organisms were just too well designed for this to be a matter of blind variation and mindless selection! He considered the alternative theory but found it wanting—and he was entirely right in his conclusions and reasoning.

[2] Just to be scrupulously clear, this essay is not intended to provide succor for creationists about life as it evolved on planet Earth; I am speaking of imaginary plants and imaginary ways of shaping life.

Plurality and the Big Bang

 

 

 

 

 

Plurality and the Big Bang

 

 

It is said that the big bang created space and time—they did not exist beforehand. Thus something existed (a “singularity”) before space and time existed; and it was some sort of empirical particular not an abstract entity. It is generally conceived as superhot plasma not yet differentiated into elementary particles. Now adjoin that idea to the Kantian principle that space and time are the basis of individuation for empirical particulars: there can only be a well-defined plurality of particulars if there is a spatiotemporal manifold in which these particulars are arrayed. Then we get the result that the universe at the time of the big bang was a singularity in this strong sense: it was, and could only be, a single unified entity. The conditions for plurality were not met in that early state of things: metaphysical monism prevailed of necessity. The big bang fragmented reality, taking it from unity to multiplicity, by dint of space and time. It created division. It gave the world parts. It allowed particulars to exist apart from each other.

So one thing we know about the universe before the big bang is that it was devoid of plurality. It was as the metaphysical monists conceive of reality today: a seamless whole. Some philosophers have thought that Kant’s noumenal world must be a unitary world, given that it is not subject to the categories of space and time (the conditions for plurality not being met in that world). Others have speculated that all minds must be fundamentally identical given that the mind is not a spatial entity (for what could their distinctness consist in but spatial separation?). Well, if the universe issued from a big bang that created space and time, then it too must have existed in a unitary form—as a single undifferentiated entity. We can therefore deduce that there had to be a single singularity: there could not have been a plurality of singularities each spawning a totality of discrete particulars. For these would have to exist separately in space and time, given that spatiotemporal separation is the ultimate basis for individual distinctness, and space and time did not exist until the big bang wrought them. The universe could not have resulted from a pair of singularities—no universe could, by Kant’s principle. They would have to be separated in space (if simultaneous) but there was no space at the onset of the big bang. Accordingly, there was just one big bang, and there had to be: the singularity was necessarily singular.[1]

This is a substantive piece of knowledge—a significant cosmological theorem. We know very little about the state of the universe before the big bang, but we do know that it was unitary in a very strong sense—there was no existing plurality of empirically particulars. Metaphysically, the universe was one. Plurality was a later offshoot of this underlying oneness—an emergent property rooted in a more basic reality. We might even say that reality is fundamentally singular, cosmologically speaking. Maybe the singularity comprised a unified field of force lacking particulate structure—not even consisting of matter in the sense we now conceive of it. Material plurality is a late development, a contingent offshoot: au fond the universe is undivided power (energy, oomph). This is a fact worth knowing, providing an insight into the nature of the universe before it was fragmented by that early explosion. There was an abrupt transition from the One to the Many—plurality emanating from unity. An undifferentiated whole shattered into pieces as space and time took shape. The old cosmic unity was gone: now the universe was a collection of separate particulars existing at a distance from each other. Before the big bang there was no room (literally) in the universe for distinct particulars–everything had to be jammed inextricably together as a single seamless entity. It is doubtful that we can even conceive of this reality, except in the most abstract and metaphorical terms, given that our minds have evolved to cope with a world of spatiotemporal plurality: but its general structure follows from basic cosmological principles. In creating space and time the universe brought forth plurality from unity. It broke the bonds of being. It changed the metaphysical structure of reality.

 

Colin McGinn

[1] Of course, nobody doubts that there was just one big bang as a matter of empirical fact; but what we have here is a proof that this had to be so.

Why Sex?

Why Did Sex Evolve?

 

 

Some reproduction is sexual and some is asexual. There is no biological necessity about sexual reproduction, despite its prevalence. How could there be any such necessity, given that the basic principle of evolutionary biology is just that organisms are designed to maximize the presence of their genes in later generations? This says nothing about mixing genes or about a division between the sexes. Why not reproduce purely by cloning? Why isn’t all genesis parthenogenesis? This seems perfectly possible, much simpler, and evidently how reproduction began on planet earth. So why did sex evolve from non-sex?

The problem is not just that no obvious adaptive rationale for sex seems to suggest itself; there are positive reasons why the existence of sex seems to violate basic principles of evolutionary biology. The most obvious point is what might be called “gene dilution”: instead of passing down a hundred percent of one’s genes, one passes down only fifty percent. In parthenogenesis a hundred percent are inherited, so surely an organism would prefer that figure to a mere fifty per cent. Genes that build bodies that pass on only a fraction of themselves will not be as frequent in later populations as genes that pass on a hundred per cent of themselves. Sexual reproduction appears to thwart the prime directive governing genes: maximization. Second, in sexual reproduction it is necessary to find a suitable sexual partner, whereas in cloning you can go it alone. That requires expenditure of energy and risk of failure: why take such a hard road when parthenogenesis enables one to stay home alone and get on with the job without going out in search of unreliable mates? Third, from the female’s point of view sexual reproduction looks a lot like altruism: she is providing a service to the male by passing on his genes, using her own energy resources, for which she does not seem adequately recompensed. She seems to be doing the male a favor, but organisms built by selfish genes don’t do each other favors. The role of female looks unacceptably altruistic. We need to show what is in it for her genetic prospects. Why tolerate males at all? Why aren’t all organisms female?

Sex thus appears biologically paradoxical—inconsistent with even the most basic principles of evolution. We must find a way to explain its origin and persistence that comports with basic biology. Many theories have been proposed, which I won’t discuss here. I intend to propose, as economically as possible, another theory, which respects the game-theoretic selfish gene perspective now prevalent in the field. I call this the “genetic parasite theory”.

Imagine a population of single-celled eukaryotic organisms (ones with a sheathed nucleus containing DNA) and suppose their mode of reproduction to be asexual. They are all, in effect, female, and reproduce by cell division, transmitting one hundred percent of their genes into each offspring. Now, life being what it is, opportunities for parasitism will arise: some of these cells may adapt to exploit the resources of other cells in the population, without killing them. Let us suppose that they attach themselves to the surface of host cells and siphon off nutrition found in the host. The host will resist such nutritional theft, but it may persist nevertheless, possibly following an arms race between parasite and host. Being a parasite is always a highly attractive option for any evolved creature, having all the benefits of theft over honest toil, and is not easily foiled (it is really just a kind of non-fatal predation). But suppose that some cells are more ambitious: they seek not just food but also reproductive assistance—they want to use other cells to pass on their genes, sparing themselves the expense and trouble. They therefore evolve a pointy organ that can penetrate the surface membrane of other cells and transfer their own DNA into the nucleus of the host cell, where it can enjoy the resources of the host cell in getting itself reproduced. These cells are not nutritional parasites but genetic parasites. They might even be able to replace entirely the DNA of the host cell, by inserting all their own DNA into the nucleus. That would mean that none of the host’s genes are transmitted and all of theirs are. By the laws of gene selection such a host would soon go extinct; its offspring would be copies of the parasitic cell. We would thus expect that counter-measures to the genetic infiltration would evolve, and an arms race would develop. The host cell might develop ways of poisoning the parasite or dissolving its genetic residue once inside or blunting its pointy organ. Let us suppose that an equilibrium point is reached in which fifty percent of the parasite’s DNA is permitted inside the host’s nucleus and fifty percent of the host’s DNA remains. Perhaps if the host accepts this amount less damage is done to it by the invasive cell, which will limit its aggressive incursions if the host cooperates to some extent (otherwise it will fight to the death). Still, this is a highly unsatisfactory outcome for the host, because of gene dilution. How might it adapt to this state of affairs? It needs to find a way to get something out of the new arrangement—some sort of genetic payoff.

Some of the genetic parasites will contain better genes than others. If poor quality genes are mixed with the host’s genes, then the result will be less advantageous than if good quality genes are mixed. Given that the host is losing fifty percent of her genes in the new arrangement, it would clearly be better if she were to have good quality alien genes than poor quality ones, since the whole package will then do better, which is good for her genes. So she begins to favor parasitic genes that are better than others—she exercises quality control with respect to her genetic parasites. She becomes selective in her resistance. She is still not as well off genetically as she was before all this happened, when she reproduced by solitary cloning, since she is still suffering from gene dilution. But there is little she can do about it given the aggressive parasites she has to contend with. It is always better to have no parasites than some, but it can be better to have some parasites rather than others. You want the ones that can do you a favor in return, if that is at all feasible. Thus our host will want to select the best genes she can from her would-be parasites, because these will aid her own genes better than other parasitic genes will. The situation is still unstable, however, because there will be selective pressure to revert to the pre-parasite state of things, where all of her genes get perpetuated. She will want to resist the genetic parasites as much as possible, consistently with the arms race and the costs of resistance. How can things be made more palatable to her?

Suppose that among her “suitors” a select few have genes with the following property: if they are combined with hers they will actually increase the chances of her own genes surviving into the future, relative to their chances without such combination. Given genetic variation in the population, some cells will be more viable than others—and these are the best ones to “mate” with. In other words, the optimal strategy for an invaded host cell is to select a parasite that will improve her genetic prospects—not just relative to other potential parasites but also relative to her chances without such parasites. If she mates with such a fine specimen, then her genes will actually be better off than if she reproduced all on her own. True, there will be fewer of her genes in the next generation, but by combining with genes superior to her own she will ensure that more of her genes will eventually survive and reproduce. The result of this kind of upgrade combination is a “leg up” in terms of genetic survival, compared to the way things used to be. This, then, is how sexual reproduction evolved as a stable mode of reproduction: genetic parasitism combined with genetic selection that provides a “leg up”. What started as straight parasitism, with the usual arms race and compromise, turned into a kind of symbiosis, when the female improved her genes’ chances by selecting high quality “male” genes. Now there was something in it for her, beyond simply minimizing the bad effects of determined parasites. If she could have won the arms race against the parasites, reverting to her untroubled asexual mode of reproduction, that would have been quite satisfactory; but it is even better to find a way to exploit the parasite by selecting only parasites that serve her own genetic interests better than the old regime. And if she could not win the arms race anyway, it is better to turn a fait accompli into an unexpected triumph: the female cells that are better at selecting the male genetic parasites with the best genes will do better than those that are not so good at this. Thus we get competition among males to be selected and competition among females for the best males.

Here are a couple of analogies to bring out the logic of the situation. Suppose there was a parasitic worm that could actually affect the DNA of its host: it secretes a chemical into the DNA and changes its composition, producing new genes. Suppose some of these worms produced worse DNA and some produced better DNA. Clearly it is to the advantage of the host organism that it selects the worms that improve its DNA, since these will then have a better chance of being passed on. It might be better to have no such worm, but given that this is unavoidable, natural selection will favor the “good” worms over the “bad”. And maybe there are some worms so good that it is better to have them than to have no worms at all—since they can build organisms greatly superior to any built by the host’s original genetic composition. These super-worms produce simply outstanding children for the host. Similarly, alien DNA (deriving from a “male”) might so improve the female’s gene complex that the necessary genetic dilution is acceptable, according to the genetic calculations. Fifty per cent of my genes surviving for a thousand generations is a lot better than one hundred percept surviving for only ten generations. It is like five of my ten children living to be a hundred with the other five dying in childbirth, compared to all of them living only to the age of three. A worm that re-tooled your genes to make them substantially better at surviving would pay its way in the unforgiving genetic arithmetic. Genes for tolerating such a worm would be more likely to be passed on.

The second analogy concerns coalitions. If someone comes to you to form a coalition in order to secure some future benefit, you must ask yourself a simple question: am I better of with her or without her? If I can secure the benefit without the coalition, I do well to decline her offer, since I would then have to share the benefit. But if I judge that I cannot achieve the end without her help, then I should join with her in a coalition, since I will get nothing otherwise. Sexual reproduction has the same logic: if my genes go it alone they have a certain probability of surviving to reproductive age (maybe zero), but if I combine them with someone else’s genes (losing fifty per cent of them, say), then there is a different probability of their survival. If the latter exceeds the former, then I am rational to choose the latter over the former. A potential mate is like someone offering you a coalition: if you mate with me I assure you the chances of genetic happiness are high, compared to the chances if you mate with someone else or just decide to go it alone. Suppose you happen to have both means of reproduction available to you, sexual and asexual. You have to choose which to employ. You compute the payoffs by multiplying the number of your genes that will get passed on by the probability of their survival (over, say, the next million years). If a hundred per cent get passed on by the asexual method, but there is a low probability of their long term survival, you might opt for the sexual method where fewer get passed on but the probability of survival is much higher—but only if you believe the “donor” genes have this kind of survival power. In the same way, your coalition mate has to be good enough to warrant dividing the spoils with her later, or else you will choose to go it alone and keep all the spoils for yourself. Sex arises from genetic coalitions, possibly preceded by genetic parasitism. This is better for both parties, because there is something in it for the host and the parasite benefits because its incursions are no longer resisted. Thus we move from resistance to consent: the male benefits but so does the female. This solves the problem we started out with, which was to explain how sexual reproduction could make sense given that asexual reproduction seems so much more sensible biologically. The answer is that it results from a strategy for dealing with genetic parasitism.

Let me restate the point in less abstract terms. Why should a female mammal allow her womb to be colonized by a male mammal with a different set of DNA? Why should her energy resources be diverted into generating his child? He should take care of it himself! He is just freeloading off her womb and energy resources. The suggested answer is that she is gambling that the influx of his genes will improve the prospects of her genes. Given that the male would just parasitize her womb anyway, it is better to be selective about mates and try to improve her own chances in the genetic lottery. In the payoff matrix that describes all the options, with their various costs and benefits, sexual reproduction seems the best choice—the best compromise, we might say. Asexual reproduction makes perfect biological sense—it is how a well-meaning Creator might have arranged things—but given the rough and tumble of evolution, with the ever-present threat of unscrupulous parasites, sex has emerged as a kind of game-theoretic solution to an inevitable problem: namely, what to do about those pesky genetic parasites. The parasites are with us always, given the attraction of that line of work; the question is what can be done about them. And the answer in one word is: compromise. Sex is a kind of accommodation to the harsh reality of biological existence—ultimately, access to energy.

If this explanation is on the right lines, what might we expect to characterize animals and their sexual behavior? One point has already been mentioned: we would expect male competition for females, selectivity from females, and competition within females for outstanding males. Of course, these are all abundant features of animal behavior. Correspondingly, we would expect female sexual anatomy to conform to the general theoretical picture: it should not be too easy to impregnate the female, which would impair her ability to be selective. Her consent to copulation should be required for copulation to be feasible for the male. Rape should be, at least, difficult and potentially hazardous. At the same time, copulation should not be so difficult that a suitable male is just not up to the task: hence difficult but not too difficult. We might also expect sex to be somewhat predatory, given that the male is always essentially exploiting the female, in order to spare himself the effort of gestating offspring; and the female will always be wary and choosy, wondering if this suitor is really “the one”. She is giving up a lot to incubate his progeny, in terms of energy and commitment; so she has to be sure there is something in it for her (i.e. her genes). The genes of the female must move her in such a way that their interests are respected, even though only fifty per cent of them will end up in the next generation. The genes of the male have no such concerns, given that he is not called upon to act as incubator; and he can spread those genes around ad libitum. The underlying logic of sex predicts these kinds of phenotypic facts, and they are evident enough in animal behavior. Fundamentally, the male is still the aggressive parasite and the female the reluctant host trying to make the best of a bad job. Of course, once the sexual machinery is in place and the female has no other reproductive option, she will act with enthusiasm and commitment; but the genesis of sexual reproduction is still written into the underlying structure of the sexual relationship.

A less obvious consequence concerns sexual selection. The female exercises quality control: she evaluates her potential mates by formulating hypotheses about their genetic fitness, based on what she can observe. She cannot peer directly into the suitor’s genes but must go by outward appearance. Thus she espies the peacock’s lavish tail and infers genetic superiority within. This causes males to improve their appearance so that females will evaluate them highly: but to improve their appearance they have to improve their reality. They have to be bigger and stronger, less infested with parasites, and more able to sustain pointless bits of flamboyance. So there is selective pressure on males to improve. Thus sex leads to sexual selection, which leads to improvement. That is, sex is what powers evolution to produce ever more complex and accomplished animals, via sexual selection. But asexual reproduction has no such consequence: the organism just reproduces itself according to its original design. There is no sexual selection when reproduction is asexual, and hence no motor to drive biological progress. The result is likely to be stasis, uniformity, and dullness. You don’t get complex beautiful animals when the method of reproduction is asexual. It is not, of course, that anyone is aiming for such complex beauty; it is just that the mechanism for producing it does not exist in a world without sexual reproduction. We owe it to sex to kick start evolution into a higher gear; before sex the pressures for change were minimal. It was when females started to be choosy, as a way of making the best out of living in a world of genetic parasites, that sexual selection triggered the kind of evolutionary changes that we see. Without sex Earth might never have got beyond boring bacteria floating in nondescript oceans. We owe it to the parasites among them to have initiated a process that led to the impressive variety of animal life that now exists.

Here is one final point–a kind of theorem: a genetically perfect female has no rationale for engaging in sex in a world in which she is subject to genetic parasitism. If she cannot improve her genetic fitness by merging her genes with those of a male, then she has no motive to permit her body to be used as incubator. For her, all genetic mixing is genetic degradation. She therefore has every reason to fight off all male incursions. But the same is not true of a genetically perfect male: he still has every reason to reproduce sexually, since he can thereby produce more copies of his genes than by solitary cloning. He just has to deposit them in as many willing (or unwilling) female bodies as possible. There is a huge logical asymmetry between being the one with the incubating body and being the one who uses someone else’s body as incubator. That asymmetry is the real basis of sexual reproduction (and indeed ultimately defines the difference between the sexes). Genetic perfection in the female leads naturally to frigidity, but genetic perfection in the male entails no diminution of sexual appetite. In other words, the genes see no point in sexual reproduction for the genetically perfect female, but they see a lot of point in it for the genetically perfect male. Of course, there is no such thing as genetic perfection in the real biological world–but I am making a purely logical point.

 

Colin McGinn