PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Thursday, July 31, 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: The existence of the soul

Dear friends,

I hope you are busy making plans for your holidays, but if you are still
in Madrid, this Sunday we will be discussing: The existence of the soul.

Unfortunately, I did not finish my essay this time, partly because I did
not like what I was writing and partly because I was a bit busy.

Take care and see you Sunday





**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);

Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);

+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Yahoo group >> <
-Old essays:
- Blog:
tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: The existence of
the soul

Thursday, July 24, 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Why do people need to join clubs?

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing a topic very close to our heart: why do
people need to join clubs? At face value this does not seem to be a
philosophical question, but as I try to show, this question is more than
just a philosophical question. But I'll let you discover why I say this
when you read the essay.

I do, however, apologise for any typos and errors which I might have
overlooked in the rush to get this essay out by this morning. Have a
good long weekend holiday and see you Sunday.

Take care



+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Yahoo group >> <
-Old essays:
- Blog:
tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147

Why do people need to join clubs?

There are a number of issues that make this question also a
philosophical question. However, given the interdisciplinary nature of
the question we might also have to establish whether this is a subject
relevant to theoretical philosophy or applied philosophy or both. And
how does this question affect us philosophically. My plan is to give a
general idea of how and why this is also a philosophical question.

We also need to widen the scope and meaning of the word "club" since
although some groups are not called clubs they share many aspects of
what we normally understand by the word club. Or use some other term
such as group, society, or association, or simply nothing.

Then there are groups that do not necessarily follow the same model of
clubs we might be more familiar with. For example, I am thinking of
debating groups, tertulias, ex.pat groups, or even a group of friends
who meet at the local bar to play cards or whatever.

In some countries, for example England and Wales, they have a legal
structure to regulate clubs. Most of these relate to the legal status of
a group, the rules that govern club constitutions and so on. I won't
consider the legal and historical context of clubs since this most
probably falls outside the ambit of philosophy. For example, the private
gentlemen's clubs in London or the Salons so famous in Paris.

How do clubs, in our extended meaning, fit within theoretical and
applied philosophy? I would say that issues pertaining to the Person
would probably belong to theoretical philosophy. For example, personal
identity, social interaction, emotional feelings, personal objectives,
interacting with groups and group interactions, the sense of belonging
and so on.

The nature and scope of clubs that would belong to applied philosophy
would include clubs connected with political ideology, religious
beliefs, commercial interests, the sharing of knowledge or information.
There are also clubs that go beyond group gatherings, for example
football clubs, chambers of commerce etc. A new form of gathering today
are cyber communities which reflect communities in real life but with
many thousand of members if not millions.

The key feature of a club is that it is a form of a community. By
definition a community is always made up of a number of people: the
number is probably not important other than that it must be a reasonable
number in the circumstances. For example, there can possibly be a club
of ex-Presidents of the USA, today that would have four members, but not
of ex-Popes. This condition of number of people is not much different in
basic structure than any other forms of human groups found in nature
(natural groups): family, extended family, tribe and nation.

The difference or important difference between clubs and natural groups
is that we have no choice as to which natural group we belong to. We
have no choice who our family is nor our state or nation. Although, of
course, we can leave our family or change our citizenship. But once
again this is irrelevant.

The other main difference is that natural groups exist by default and in
virtue of the natural biological way humans have evolved. The biological
immediate family with common genes is usually quite small: parents plus
children. Clubs, on the other hand, usually develop for a purpose or an
objective. Most clubs also require some form of free or voluntary act to
participate in. But as I have already hinted at, free and voluntary must
be used advisably.

The most important theoretical aspect of joining a club is a sense of
belonging. And I would say that the single most important feature of
belonging is acceptance by one's peers. Put in an other way, one of the
most traumatic psychological experience we can have is to be rejected by
our peers. Acceptance and rejections are themselves very relevant for
who we are, our personality and most important of all, our personal

In terms of biological matter we are, more or less the same, but
personal identity is the only thing that makes us different from the
other 5.999 billion people on the planet. But personal identity is not
only what we know about ourselves and about what we think of ourselves.
Personal identity is also about what others think of us and know about
us. If you like, our personal identity is metaphorically some kind of
rational credentials we need to operate in society. It is a necessary
condition that makes all of us a person and not just a blob of
biological matter.

By accepting our membership or participation in a club we are, in a way,
being told by the other members that they accept our credentials; our
personal identity. Our personal identity has value and currency with
other people which allows us to interact with the group members.

Failure of acceptance or failure of our personal identify to carry value
or currency means hostility and aggression either of a subtle kind,
maybe in the use of language, or physical aggression. Of course,
physical aggression is very easily identified: for example, a bouncer,
seven feet tall and weighs half a ton, outside a fashionable disco club
is a clear sign of potential physical persuasion.

What is more interesting for us is the subtle use of language that
itself might be aggressive. Of course, in most countries there are laws
against violence and discrimination. But, of course, verbal violence is
more sophisticated than that. We, as a philosophy group, employ very
subtle forms of rejecting some people, hence aggression but nothing
illegal or improper, in the same way that a football club use subtle
language as a form of aggression or knitting club, the cactus lovers
club and so on.

When we call ourselves a philosophy group we are in effect sending out a
signal that the opportunities for discussing knitting and cacti are very
limited. And these limits would certainly feel like a rude rejection if
we choose not to discuss knitting and cacti. Is the word philosophy
(knitting, cactus etc) doing the equivalent job of a seven foot half ton

I distinguished natural groups from clubs by pointing out that clubs
usually have an aim, an interest, an objective. What distinguishes us
from other creatures is not that we have plans and they don't, but that
we have rational plans and not just instinct type of plans. Of course,
it does not mean that because we have rational plans somehow we are
always right or that we are always better. Not to mention species
arrogance. So, just because we have a well thought out business plan,
based on solid statistics, to exploit all the natural resources in the
next five years, it does not follow that we are better than whales and

It does mean, however, that we employ methodologies exclusive to us to
achieve our aims and objectives. And that these methodologies depend
heavily on our brain power and not our muscle power. Compared to other
creatures we have the most impressive unique selling feature of all: our
brain power.

Thus clubs, as we generally know them, are a rational solution for us to
achieve some of our personal objectives by mustering together similarly
minded people to participate in our activities. The most important
implication of all this is that the members of the clubs can also share
their skills, information and knowledge with the rest of the other
members. What I think about a philosophical issue (or knotting or
cacti....) might be interesting, but knowing what twenty or thirty other
people think about the same issue makes us all wiser and more informed.

Staying at home looking at myself and thinking how handsome I am will
never get me a partner, mate or friends. Mixing with other people is
organised groups (discos, discussion groups, singles' clubs...) will at
least give me an idea of what the competition is like. I might also find
a partner if I am clever about my strategy. Clubs help us achieve some
of our aims and objectives amongst our peers.

Speaking from experience, doing philosophy by one's self might be
interesting, challenging and absorbing. But doing philosophy with twenty
or thirty other people each trying to convince and persuade everyone
with their points of view is more exhilarating, engrossing and certainly
makes one feel a rational person.

Thus, being in the company of others pursuing our aims and objectives,
the same as they are doing, can give us an emotional feeling of
fulfilment. We can say that clubs have the potential to make us feel
good about some of the things we care about. For example, we might
experience a sense of helping others or of being helped by others. After
all one meaning of what it is to be rational is to cooperate with
others, and sometimes even helping others. I am sure there is nothing
more gratifying than helping someone get their stitches right on their
woolly jumper.

Although our personal objectives fall squarely within the domains of
philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, and maybe the self and
consciousness, the objectives of a club fall squarely within applied
philosophy. For example, the philosophy of social structure, political
philosophy, sociology and anthropology and maybe even social psychology.

A group of twenty or thirty people getting together to discuss some
philosophical topic is not a very complex structure. This is not to say
that the relationship between twenty or thirty people is not complex.
However, the situation is quite transparent.

But what about twenty or thirty people getting together to try and
develop a sinister political ideology? How should we consider such a
group? Luckily, not many groups of people get together to topple a
legitimate political system. But as I have shown, many groups directly
or indirectly discriminate by virtue of their objectives. Maybe we might
be hard with someone who insists on talking to a philosophy group about
knitting patterns, but on the other hand we might do our best not to
hurt their feelings too much. What if a club is not so denerous?

For example, what if a club requires that we pay a 1000 euros membership
fee per month to join the club; what are they telling us? That this club
is very exclusive or that this club only welcomes certain members of
society: i.e. the super rich? Do the words "exclusive" and "elite" in
our language, besides meaning special interests (knitting,
philosophy...), also function something like a code saying "we
discriminate against people who are not our peers?"

Whilst most clubs do operate as a means to get together people with the
same aims and objectives, some also have ulterior motives. A
mountaineering club, a philosophy group or a knitting society are quite
straightforward and transparent. Of course, this does not mean, and I am
not saying that these straightforward clubs can only be used to pursue
the focus of the club. Some people join clubs simply to be with other
people, others maybe to find a partner or make friends. But these extra
curricula activities do not diminish the scope of the club. On the
contrary, these extras might enhance the scope of clubs because they
give the community added value.

But what about clubs that seek to manipulate society or certain members
of society: political parties, lawyers societies, street gangs,
religious associations, or even religions themselves. Are we to say that
these groups are all bad just because they either exclude most members
of society (lawyers' associations..) or want to pursue their ideologies
(political parties)?

This question, I contend is not that easy to answer. I won't of course,
consider the claim that one group should exist but not the opposition.
But rather, if we accept that political parties, for example, are
legitimate, why shouldn't a party with a racist agenda not exist? The
issue is not whether racism or discrimination are wrong, they always
are, but what makes a club legitimate and worthy of existing. For
example, why are we prepared to accept groups such as religions, based
on the belief that god exists, but not a group who believe that males
are the only super beings?

We might argue that the objectives of the club, make the club
legitimate. Which is quite a reasonable claim to make. But this
presupposes that we have a system in place to make value judgements. As
system that will eventually tell us what is a legitimate objective and
what is not a legitimate objective. But even this criterion might be
difficult to manage, especially since an evil ideology might be in a
position of power to decide what is legitimate and thus decide what
clubs should exist and how they should function. Both National Socialism
and Communists ideologies were, and still are, very efficient at
imposing such a situations on people.

A tentative answer might be to consider first the objectives of the club
(philosophy vs evil ideology) and then the behaviour of the members of
the club. If a racist club advocate the demise of a certain group within
society and after their meeting they gather to find a person from such a
group to beat them up, then surely this club ought to be abolished. But
this is not enough. Surely coercion to join a club might itself be
indicative of something unacceptable. Or maybe, repercussions for
wanting to leave a club is equally sinister of what that club stands
for. Absence of free speech or freedom to disagree should send alarm
bells ringing.

To conclude, I think we can safely say that clubs reflect not only the
human character, but also life in general. We find cooperation in clubs
but also aggression. We find risks in clubs, in the same way we do in
life as Miguel pointed out in his essay of the Fragility of Life (see
essays with this title), but we also find safety in numbers ( for
example a mountaineering club with many experts). We find knowledge and
information in clubs but also false beliefs. And so on.

Although we sometimes join clubs to fulfil our wish and need to be a
person and not just a biological mass, we can only do that is we can
join a club freely and leave a club freely. Any other way would be
deterministic of our biological make up obeying the laws of struggle and

Take care



**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);

Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Why do people need
to join clubs?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: What is a Person? + News reminder

Essay + Laura's visit to the cinema tomorrow night + Alfonso's exhibition

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing the question: What is a Person?

This discussion should be as interesting as last Sunday's talk about the
fragility of life. In the meantime I would like to remind you about
Alfonso's exhibition in Cuenca and Laura's visit to the free cinema
tomorrow, Friday, night.

Alfonso has a painting exhibition in Cuenca until the 13 August, at the
Centro Cultural Aguirre. I have included a scan of the leaflet Alfonso
gave me on the Picasa photo website. The address is:

Lawrence, I would like to invite the group to see European cinema...
Friday night, for free. I am going there Friday the 18 July, 2230, to
see "Grvabica" . The web says "Ciclo de CINE EUROPEO DE VERANO al aire
libre. Todos los viernes, entre el 11 de Julio y el 29 de Agosto, ambos
inclusive, a las 22:30 h.en la Sede de las Instituciones Europeas en
España, Paseo de la Castellana, 46 - Madrid. La Oficina del Parlamento
Europeo y la Representación de la Comisión Europea en España, se
complacen en invitarles al Ciclo de Cine Europeo de Verano, donde podrán
disfrutar de ocho películas europeas en versión original subtitulada,
bajo el cielo de la noche madrileña.

The whole programme can be found in

See you there , I hope :-)


Take care and see you Sunday or maybe tomorrow night



+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Yahoo group >> <
-Old essays:
- Blog:
tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147

What is a person?

"What is x?" type of questions are part of what is called the Socratic
method. Briefly, <1 the Socratic method starts with a proposer asserting
a thesis and by a series of questions the philosopher gets the proposers
to agree to certain propositions that lead contrary to the thesis of the

Look at this quotation from the Meno: "Soc. How fortunate I am, Meno!
When I ask you for one virtue, you present me with a swarm of them,
which are in your keeping. Suppose that I carry on the figure of the
swarm, and ask of you, What is the nature of the bee? and you answer
that there are many kinds of bees, and I reply: But do bees differ as
bees, because there are many and different kinds of them; or are they
not rather to be distinguished by some other quality, as for example
beauty, size, or shape? How would you answer me?

Men. I should answer that bees do not differ from one another, as bees." <2

Following the Socratic method we can ask ourselves is: Can we give an
example of a Person? Of course, this is nearly an absurd question to
ask, because all we have to do is to look at the first human being we
come across and say, "There you are, a person!" And you will be right,
of course. We might even ask to point out anther person and we, once
again, will point at an other human being and so on. Now we can ask
ourselves the following question: can we point at a person without also
pointing at a human being?

So either the answer to our question is: a person is a human being. Or
the question What-is-a-Person? is just not a valid question. I would
submit that at the very best this type of question is not universally
valid with any concept. A very extreme position would be to claim that
the question, "What is x?" is just plain invalid; its a non question.
What is clear is that some what-is-x? type of questions can be answered
empirically while others are not clear whether we are looking for an
empirical or rational/metaphysical answer. For example what-is-a-table?
is an empirical question and in most cases we have no problems answering
it, but what-is-good? or what-is-virtue? are not so clear and

Is the question what-is-a-person? a question with an empirical answer or
a rational/metaphysical answer?

I do not think that the question what-is-a-person? is simply answered by
"a human being". Which in practice would mean that what-is-a-person? is
an empirical question. Although I am prepared to concede that
what-is-a-person? is a valid question since it has an empirical
component, it is also meaningless without the necessary context, which
would make it a rational question as well. Thus what-is-a-person? should
be accompanied by such other questions as, what is the purpose of having
personhood? What are the rights and duties of a person? Why do we need
to have personhood besides also having human being?

What I am suggesting is that to answer the question what-is-a-person? we
have to go through a two step process. The first would be to qualify the
term human being which will give us the status of person. And then to
identify the context that would give us the Modus Operandi for personhood.

Another issue that also needs clarifying is the relationship between the
question what-is-a-person? and what-is-personal-identity? There is no
doubt or ambiguity that these are not the same question. What am I? is
different from Who am I? Our task now is to answer the question What am
I? although of course who am I? is an important component of the
question What am I?

The importance of personal identity is that we think of the question in
terms of personhood over time. Am I today the same person that was
yesterday? And will the person I am today cause the person I will be
tomorrow? And what constitutes that I am the same person over time? What
does being the person that you are, from one day to the next,
necessarily consist in? <3 For example what person would I be if I
forgot everything about me? Or maybe if I only existed as a brain in a
jam jar that is somehow kept in a functioning order?

I submit that what-is-a-person? is not a question that depends on
personal identity, but rather personhood causes personal identity. The
question is whether it is a necessary condition that every person also
has a personal identity? Or whether we can find a person without a
personal identity?

John Locke defined a person as: "a thinking intelligent Being, that has
reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same
thinking thing in different times and places; which it does only by that
consciousness, which is inseparable from thinking, and as it seems to me
essential to it" (Essay on Humane Understanding, Book 2, Chapter 27,
Section 9)." <4 Furthermore, in the same Wikipedia article there a
clarification of this point, "a person is defined by the characteristics
of reasoning, consciousness, and persistent personal identity." <4

As the Wikipedia article on Person points out, historically some human
beings were considered to either lack some of these qualities or
attributes or maybe not fully developed; women and children immediately
come to mind. Today many societies and religions still regard women and
other human with some unusual characteristic as sub human. As a
consequence this has led and leads to discrimination and exploitation of
groups and members of these groups.

Despite the real situation on the ground, today we all recognise that
the consequences of establishing personhood by human attributes are too
weak to accept. In other words, the option is to look for a demarcation
point <4 or some other fundamental feature or principle about human beings.

Speciesism <4 is a very attractive option. Ironically, speciesism even
has supporters from both religious groups and humanists. However, the
implications or conclusions that lead from speciesism are not held by
all. I do not think we need dispute that at least being born a human
being is ancestry condition for personhood. For example, those from
religious faiths would want to argue and extend this condition to
include a foetus as a human being and should therefore be attributed
personhood; or pre-personhood.

But there are problems with speciesism in the same way that there are
problems with physical attributes. Others would even want to attribute
human status to stem cells, at least those that originate from a zygote.
But why stop there; and some don't. Some want to include primates
because we share a common ancestry if not genes as well. But why stop at
primates, why not include bananas? After all we do have 50% of our genes
in common with banana.<5 But these are dead end arguments.

This slippery slope argument does not highlight the absurdity of
speciesism, but rather it highlights two other important things:
1) Personhood is causally linked to life.
2) Personhood ought to apply to a very narrow range of the spectrum of
life. In the same sense that red and blue colours only apply to a small
range in the energy spectrum.
If personhood is causally linked to life, then maybe religious groups
might be right. Even they apply personhood to a narrow range of the
spectrum of life.

However: how narrow should this range be of the spectrum of life?
Presumably an Egyptian building the pyramids would be attributed
personhood. Maybe the artist who painted the caves at Altamira would be
a person. But would Cro-Magnon man, Homo sapiens sapiens who lived some
40,000 years ago, also be a person?

And what about future human beings who might have evolved in the same
way that cro-magnons evolved; would they also be a person? and can we
say anything intelligent about these future human beings? We might say
something intelligent about these beings, but I doubt we can say
anything relevant. In the same way that Aristotle did not say anything
relevant about using satellite technology for communications.

I want to digress a bit at this point to address a recurrent problem in
philosophy and maybe even science. There is a danger that in our thought
experiments and maybe analogies and metaphors we might cross the line
between plausible future situations and science fiction. There are many
examples of these thought experiments, for example see the Wikipedia
article on Person. <4 What if we could transplant brains into other
bodies? Would this be the same person of the brain or the body? And to
complicate the example, what if we could clone the body of the person
whose brain we are transplanting. Would this still be the same person? I
would say that at the very least it will be a long time before anything
resembling this situation would take place. So anything we say now would
probably be irrelevant, speculation or just idle chit-chat. Conclusion:
let future philosophers solve future problems, we have enough problems
of our own today. And science fiction should really be indulged as a
separate hobby or pass time.

One of the problems we have today is indeed a question such as the
status of stem cells or foetuses. I think that stem cell technology
although still at it nascent phase, the question whether these cells are
human beings is redundant because stem cells are not only found in

Earlier I asked, what is the purpose of having personhood? Apart from
stopping us discriminate or exploit others. Let's ask this question:
what will happen if a person falls into a vegetative coma? Excluding of
course the many patients who are misdiagnosed as being in this state. <6
What happens in reality is that this person would still be regarded as a
person despite the state they are in:

Legal: the courts can intervene should there be a dispute in the
treatment and the legal status of this person. For example the Terri
Schiavo case in Florida <7 or Eluana Englaro case in Italy <8

Citizenship: the state can give its citizens the right to decide what
should happen to them should they fall into a vegetative coma or other
conditions. See for example the instructions by the Ayuntamiento de
Madrid on how to prepare and register a living will. <9

Social: this person would still be a member of a family and still a
member of a group of friends.

Medical: health carers still have a duty of care despite the fact that
this would be a very difficult case for them. <6

Economic: this person would still be an economic agent using scarce
resources even though they cannot act or express preferences.

Religion: religious believers hold that the fate of this person is
decided by god but this belief can be in conflict with medial and legal
opinion. <7

Political: politicians feel, even if they seem to be somewhat cynically,
that they have the duty to protect people in vegetative state. See the
Terri Schiavo for a complex political case. <7

The question we have to ask ourselves is this: is philosophy going to
deny personhood to a human being who is in a vegetative state? I don't
think so. In the same way that we cannot find a human being without
being a person, we cannot find a person who lacks some human attribute
and ceases to be a person.

Considering that what-is-a-person? is first and foremost a practical and
empirical question, what attributes can we claim of personhood that does
not violate the consistency of attributes criteria? I have already
shown, for example, that consciousness cannot be such a criterion, nor
the brain or self awareness and so on. In fact, it seems to me that
functionality of the body cannot be either a necessary nor sufficient
condition for personhood.

I propose that an attribute that will meet our need for a condition that
is both necessary and sufficient, and does not violate the continuity of
attributes criteria to be this: to be born from a human female mother.

This condition immediately satisfies the necessary and sufficient
condition for being a person. We now have the first demarcation point,
that of needing a human female, who is also a person. Thus we can
exclude the science fiction idea of growing a human being in a vat of
chemical soup. It might also save us the horror of some ethically
questionable endeavour that someone might want to pass as science.

It is also a condition that does not change or degrade over time in the
same way other attributes might degrade such as the brain, consciousness
etc. It is also a condition we all have in common without variation or

Furthermore, motherhood gives us the continuity of identity which,
although it was started with an other person (the mother) it becomes our
identity when we become a person. We do not only inherit our genes from
our parents but also the seeds for our personal identity. Hence we even
satisfy the personal identity condition at birth.

Some might ask what about those mothers who surrender their child for
adoption, how can these children have this identity process if they
cannot know who their natural mother is? Although today there is a
movement in some countries for adoptees to know who their biological
parents are, knowing that one was adopted is enough attribute for one's
personal identity. This is a fact about this adopted person which is
unique to them. Not having access to the historical events and
circumstance of the adoption does not mean that there isn't an empirical
answer relating to these events.

The other aspect of this condition is that of "being born" and not of
"being conceived". We already know that in natures functionality
process, not all conceptions lead to birth. And of course we cannot
second guess nature's way. One might then point out that conception is
also a common feature with birth, but can we really say that a zygote or
a foetus have a personal identity? Which also explains why the condition
must only be motherhood and not fatherhood. This is not to diminish the
importance of fatherhood, but a male can really be an anonymous person,
apart, that is, of his genetic information.

The birth even therefore satisfies two conditions:
1) A human being at birth means that they have reached a stage of their
development phase that is not causally dependent on a human female. We
can say that at birth a human being has reached a critical mass that
makes him or her live independently of the physical human mother. In
fact birth gives us a clear demarcation point between being a potential
person and actually being a person. Birth of a human being is not only
an irrevocable event but also an empirical and philosophical fact. Of
course, human infants still need looking after for many, many years, but
this does not mean that the biological mother or father who have to do
the looking after, even though they ought to.
2) Birth also answers the personal identity condition as I have already
said. Although at birth we are born with some personal identity ( the
history of the mother, father and family) this is also the point when
other groups within society recognise and confer personal identity on us
as individuals and not in virtue of our mother. The state grants us the
status of citizenship, people who have a direct relationship with the
new born, for example, health carers, have legal duties toward this
person as an independent person. For example, health cares have a duty
to report abuse or neglect of an infant and the state is duty bound to
seek from the courts that this infant be made ward of court. <10

Although I have claimed that what-is-a-person? is a practical question,
it is also a rational question. As far as we know, only human beings
have the concept of personhood. And this makes sense because only human
beings have developed a survival strategy based on a complex rational

And two aspects of this system are: information about persons and moral
rights and duties. I want to use moral rights and duties here to also
mean legal, political, social rights and duties etc, etc.

As persons we interact with others to survive in our environment. We
cooperate and compete with others to grow food, construct shelter and
make clothes and so on. I submit that part of our personal identity and
personhood relates to what we can do or offer to other members of
society (or persons). Exchanging information about us directly and
indirectly imposes rights and duties on us and those in a causal
relationship with us. If we go to our medical doctor with a problem our
doctor is immediately duty bound to give us heath care. Going to a
doctor also imposes a duty on us to pay our dues for social security or
national health service. Being an English teacher or a lawyer or a
plumber or a CEO gives us the right to exchange our services or labour
to earn a living ( this does not mean that we have to be given a job).
But we also have the duty to give a reasonable and professional service
when we are engaged in earning our living.

Although other creatures do exchange information about themselves and
their environment, we have elevated this exchange beyond the scope of
what other creatures do. Moreover, other creatures, I think act from
instinct, but we, however, apart from acting from instinct, we also act
from a sense of duty or because it is our duty.

Because, therefore, a person is considered a rational agent, this mean
that we have rights and duties as I have just shown and argued. Rights
and duties are one aspect of what it means to be rational, and only
persons can be rational.

Since most of us are familiar with our rights, I want to focus one more
time on our duties as persons. (In any event, someone's duty might also
imply someone has a right.) Given that our acts are not made in vacuo
this means that what we do has implications both for us and others as I
have already demonstrated. The question we can therefore, conclude with
is this: what duties do we have as persons towards each other? In other
words, what duties do we have in common towards each other that should
not and could not be waived, foregone or abdicated?

The first of these duties must surely be to treat all human beings as
persons. And secondly, not to deny a person's personal identity or to
act as if a person is devoid of any personal identity. This does not
mean that we have to be friends with every one, even though this is a
very good idea, it does, however, mean that we ought not to harm other
either as a human being or as a person.

Take care


<1 Socratic method. (2008, July 9). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Retrieved 21:57, July 16, 2008, from
But also Google <Socratic Method> to see how the Socratic method can be
used in business or other walks of life.
<2 Meno, By Plato:
<3 Personal Identity, Carsten Korfmacher, Linacre College, Oxford
<4 Person. (2008, July 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Retrieved 08:46, July 16, 2008, from
<5 The Naked Scientists, Science Questions:
<6 BMJ 1996;313:13-16 (6 July): Misdiagnosis of the vegetative state:
retrospective study in a rehabilitation unit, Keith Andrews, director of
medical services,a Lesley Murphy, senior clinical psychologist,a Ros
Munday, senior occupational therapist,a Clare Littlewood, senior
occupational therapist. OR see The
Sunday Times, December 9, 2007, The undead:
<7 Terri Schiavo. (2008, July 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Retrieved 20:09, July 16, 2008, from
<8 Italian Daily News @ Life in Italy: EUTHANASIA AUTHORISED FOR WOMAN
<9 El Ciudadano y el Sistema Sanitario. Instrucciones previas
<10 Ward of court - A minor (under 18) who is the subject of a wardship
order. The order ensures that the court has custody, with day-to-day
care carried out by an individual(s) or local authority. As long as the
minor remains a ward of court, all decisions regarding the minor's
upbringing must be approved by the court, e.g. transfer to a different
school, or medical treatment. Judicial Communications Office: Judiciary
of England and Wales:


**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);

Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: What is a Person? +
News reminder

Friday, July 11, 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: The Fragility of Life + News

Two essays Miguel + Lawrence, Exhibition by Alfonso, Laura visit to free

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing the Fragility of Life. Miguel has written
a short essay for us. One of the themes he raises are the risks in our
life. Something we are all too aware.

In my essay I look at life in its more basic and simpler contexts. The
subject of the fragility of life is quite complex, but even still, as
Miguel shows us in his essay, fragility can be very simple.

Alfonso has an painting exhibition in Cuenca until the 13 August, at the
Centro Cultural Aguirre. I have included a scan of the leaflet Alfonso
gave me on the Picasa photo website. The address is:

Lawrence, I would like to invite the group to see European cinema...
Friday night, for free. I am going there Friday the 18 July, 2230, to
see "Grvabica" . The web says "Ciclo de CINE EUROPEO DE VERANO al aire
libre. Todos los viernes, entre el 11 de Julio y el 29 de Agosto, ambos
inclusive, a las 22:30 h.en la Sede de las Instituciones Europeas en
España, Paseo de la Castellana, 46 - Madrid. La Oficina del Parlamento
Europeo y la Representación de la Comisión Europea en España, se
complacen en invitarles al Ciclo de Cine Europeo de Verano, donde podrán
disfrutar de ocho películas europeas en versión original subtitulada,
bajo el cielo de la noche madrileña.

The whole programme can be found in

See you there , I hope :-)


Take care and see you Sunday



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The fragility of life

The title of this coming Sunday's discussion is an invitation to reflect
upon those events that harm life in any way. This has prompted the usage
of the word "fragility": life is fragile because it can be damaged by
events, both expected and unexpected. Maybe a more apt title would have
been "Life and its risks", even if it sounds like the beginning of a
sales pitch from an insurance company.

One can see that a non-negligible part of all human endeavours is
directed to reduce the risks associated to harmful events. Let's think
for example of all technological advances carried out in health care.
But then, other aspect of these activities is that they produce new
risks of their own as collateral effects. Many of us will remember the
case of the defective cobalt gun in the Zaragoza Hospital that caused
the death a few years ago of many patients that were being treated for

It is very likely that we agree on the need to reduce risks with
reasonable resources, without creating new ones, but this topic is not
the main aim of the subject proposed. Our efforts should be directed
instead to explore the implications of the very existence of those
risks, big and small, expected and unexpected, i.e. to wonder: what is
nature telling us by making great efforts to preserve life, and at the
same time creating situations that can harm it? What is the meaning of a
great natural disaster, like the tsunami that devastated the Indonesian
west coastland in 2004? And that of a traffic accident in which the
victim was not to blame? Is there something useful to draw from those
fateful events and others similar to them?

A starting point for the exploration is the idea that life and risk
could well not be independent, moreover: that risk is inherent to life,
in the sense that you cannot have the latter without the former.

An argument in this sense comes from the hypothesis that life is the
result of random, unexpected processes that, by changing things so many
times, eventually it gets the building blocks of life right: the
macromolecules able to self-replicate. We find here that events leading
to life on one side, and unexpected and harmful events to life on the
other, would basically have the same nature: an intrinsic randomness in
their manifestations, something that would explain their inseparability.

On the other hand, we'd have those who think that life is a directed
process, in which randomness plays a small role –if at all. Then, for
the sake of simplicity, one could assume that the same forces
responsible for the appearance of life are behind the apparition of
those events that can harm it. We find again then an explanation of
sorts about the inevitability of the presence of both elements in many

A third way to look at the subject is to consider that risk is not only
inseparable for life, but absolutely necessary for it to evolve and be
preserved. Think about the oxygen we breathe. Were it not for it, the
main form of life on earth –to which we belong- could not have existed.
But according to the Free Radicals theory of ageing, oxygen is also a
very toxic gas, in the sense that the cellular processes that get energy
from it generate also very active oxidants (the so called free radicals)
as by products. These oxidants are so reactive that they can damage
delicate molecules such as DNA, and interfere in many other processes at
a molecular level. Their visible results would be ageing and death.

Think also about all the risks taken by all persons that push things to
the limit: explorers of uncharted territories and seas -on Earth and
other planets-, lovers of extreme sports, record seekers, etc. By
assuming and accepting the risks involved, those persons are also
opening new possibilities for life and technology.

This third view is reinforced if we look at what happens when risks are
systematically reduced beyond a certain threshold. To illustrate it,
let's consider our immune system. As we know, it is meant to protect our
bodies from disease and infection. Nevertheless, there are instances in
which the immune system goes berserk and attacks the very body that it
is meant to protect. These ailments are called autoimmune diseases, a
group in which we find ulcerative colitis, psoriasis and asthma, among
others. The important fact for our research is an idea on the origin of
these diseases that is steadily gaining ground, the so-called hygiene
hypothesis. It says that lack of exposure to germs due to excessive
cleanliness in modern societies (think about all chemicals used at home
to clean both the house and the body) lets our immune systems without
the traditional opponents it engages -certain species of germs and
bacteria-, to the point that it attacks the body out of idleness. The
question arises then: is there a big risk in reducing risks too much?

It looks as if risks were deeply interwoven in the very fabric of life,
as a necessary element but with a very specific proportion: lack of risk
or too much of it harm life likewise. A similitude with a guitar string
seems appropriate: tensions (risks) above or below the right one will
produce a note that is out of tune.

Every time we see the confluence of a pair of opposites, Heraclitus of
Ephesus (-535 to -475) comes to mind. His theory about the origin of
forms (life being an attribute of certain forms) as the result of the
workings of opposite forces seems to be enduring the test of time.

Life would thus be a flow (another of Heraclitus' deep insights), a
manifestation of the convergence of opposite forces: those that strive
to perpetuate it on one side, and those that render it fragile on the other.


--------essay Lawrence-----------------------

The fragility of life

There is a graphic image in Wikipedia that illustrates the hypothetical
distance a planet has to be from a sun to harbour life. The calculations
are based on the conditions found on Earth and the relevant distance the
planet is from the sun. Thus, if the Sun was twice the mass it is, the
Habitable Zone <1 would be more or less somewhere between Mars and
Jupiter. Of course, this is all hypothetical.

The habitable zone for life theory assumes that a planet has to be at a
distance from a sun that is favourable for life. And that the sun itself
must be at an equally safe distance from the centre of the galaxy to
make it safe for a planet in a solar system to develop life. The Earth
is roughly 149,598,000 km away from the Sun and, "The Sun lies between
25,000 and 28,000 light years from the Galactic Centre,..." <2 This is
sometimes called the Goldilocks effect because it is neither too cold
nor too hot, just right. In fact, this goldilocks effect is an idea that
keeps recurring in many discussions about life.

We even find Dawkins proposing the idea of the Middle World which
explains why the world around us looks and feels the way it does. "Our
brains have evolved to help us survive within the orders of magnitude of
size and shape which our brains operate at" Richard Dawkins at the 2005
TED conference <3. The context of this observation is that we know that
there are spaces between atoms, but to be able to "see" those spaces we
have to "see" things at that level. Maybe a Neutrino might see the
spaces; or a virus might "see" the boundaries of the cell. But we live
in a world where we do not see those spaces. However, I interpret
Dawkins to mean that from our evolutionary context our world is neither
too small nor too big.

The problem with the Goldilocks effect is that this middle ground can be
quite large and the criteria of using conditions on Earth as the
benchmark for life elsewhere in the universe is very parochial and
subjective. There is no reason why life should not develop under
different conditions. In fact, even on Earth life occupies practically
all physical conditions we can come across, at least on the outer mantel
of the planet.

Exobiology is part of Astrobiology, which, according to NASA is,
"Research into the evolution of advanced life seeks to determine the
biological and environmental factors leading to the development of
multicellular life on Earth and the potential distribution of complex
life in the Universe......" <4 We are concerned about the development of
life on Earth. But in the context of the Goldilocks effect, exobiology
also studies the various life forms found on Earth that survive under
extreme conditions.

The website, Biology Cabinet, has a whole chapter on Exobiology <5 that
also has examples of, "Extremophiles" which, "are organisms that live in
extreme environments that would be deadly for the greater part of the
terrestrial living beings." For example, Nasif Nahle, the author of the
chapter, also includes the following organisms: Thermophiles: Resistant
to high temperatures (Pyrococcus lives in water at 113° C).
Psychrophiles: Resistant to very low temperatures (Cryotendolithotrophus
lives in water at -15° C). There is a more comprehensive list of these
Extremophiles in the article on the same topic in Wikipedia. <6

The reason why astrobiology and extremophiles are important for us, is
not because of the promise of finding life forms on other planets or
galaxies, but because they give us a scientific background to the
question, What is life? Having said that, this is not an easy question
and as Bruce Weber says in his article on Life, "Some biologists and
philosophers even reject the whole idea of there being a need for a
definition, since life for them is an irreducible fact about the natural
world." <7

Let us, for our purposes, accept that the life we are interested in is
biological life. This will help us because our task would be easier by
excluding such entities, which some claim to have life, as: planets,
rocks, robots, computers, souls and maybe the occasional ghost.

However, the central theme of the fragility of life ought to be the
distinction between life, meaning biological forms and individuals
within the various life forms. Thus humans are a form of biological
life, but you and me are individuals within that group. To put this in
context we can safely conclude that human life is quite resilient and
strong. It is estimated that the world population in 10,000BCE (Before
Common Era or BC) was about a million people. Today's population is
about 6.5 billion people. <8 That is a huge expansion for a life form,
especially one that has developed and evolved to a magnitude that is not
found in other creatures.

The success or resilience of human beings suggests a number of facts.
The first of which is that we humans as a group have successfully
managed to exploit, in a Darwinian meaning, our environment to meet our
survival needs. As an open system we need to replenish our internal
resources (i.e. food for energy and other minerals etc) and our survival
resources (housing, cloths, means of transport, protection).

Some scientists have described life as a phenomena, "which are open or
continuous systems able to decrease their internal entropy at the
expense of substances or free energy taken in from the environment and
subsequently rejected in a degraded form. ..." <9 This takes us back to
the habitable zone. Life form must have an environment that can sustain
life's existence. Maybe the Goldilocks effect, not too much nor too
little, is not as vital as conditions being stable. Maybe, given a set
of stable conditions in a goldilocks environment some life form can
exist in a state of equilibrium within that environment. But the
goldilocks effect must surely be relative to the stability and not
absolute to some distance and mass.

If we look at a map of human population distribution by density <10 we
can see at a glance that human life is distributed in clusters in Asia,
India, Northern and Eastern Europe, West coast of Africa and Northern
East coast and some areas of the West coast of the US. Of course, there
are many areas where people live but not in a high density to make a
mark on the map. The interesting thing for us is not that most of the
population of the world is distributed around a certain latitude, but
that there are people living in extreme conditions. The cold environment
of Alaska and Siberia, the heat of the Sahara desert, the heights of the
Himalayas and Peru.

This tells us that although we can generalise about human beings we
cannot really deduce much from these generalisations about individuals.
The thinking also applies the other way, an individual does not
necessarily represent the whole population of the world. Just because a
group of people of around 2million live in the extreme cold of the Sápmi
area (North Europe between Norway and Russia: see Wikipedia) it does not
follow that we can all live there under such harsh conditions.

However, our ability to manipulate our environment means that we can
survive in these hostile environments. Thus the fragility of life can be
mitigated in two ways. Life can change its environment or it can change
itself by natural selection. We seem to be more successful at changing
our environment in the short term than ourselves.

We would expect that geographical location also plays a role in changing
our physical make up. Although there are variations between human beings
in different geographical locations the paradox is that: "compared with
many other mammalian species, humans are genetically less diverse—a
counterintuitive finding, given our large population and worldwide
distribution (Li and Sadler 1991; Kaessmann et al. 2001)." <11

Despite the seemingly homogeneity of the human population, there are
still enough variations to make a difference. For example, some have
adapted their skin colour to survive in environments high in ultraviolet
radiation. Knowing about these variations can also have positive
implications: "From a medical perspective the study of human genetic
variation may be important because some disease causing alleles occur at
a greater frequency in people from specific geographic regions." <11

Although the individual is a very fragile system, adaptations and
selectivity make the group to which that individual belongs more
resilient. For example, if a group is immunised against an infectious
disease the whole group benefits from the protection, but if enough
individuals do not take the necessary precautions then the whole group
might not be immune against the disease. Which brings me to the next
important aspect of the fragility of life and how to mitigate it.

Cooperation is one way we can mitigate the fragility of life.
Cooperation is a survival strategy that satisfies our own personal needs
to survive and at the same time help others meet their needs to survive.
For example, division of labour is a form of cooperation whether it is
painting our front porch or building power stations to supply the energy
to factories that make the clothes we wear in winter.

I would say that the most effective way of cooperation is to share our
knowledge and information about the environment we live in. Thus knowing
about the genetic variations of individual groups can not only help find
medications to help those groups over come specific diseases they suffer
from, but also teach people to learn how to solve their specific needs.

Sharing knowledge, information and resources can help us mitigate the
fragilities of life, but there is a catch is this strategy. In the same
way that those who do not protect themselves against an infectious
disease, are putting the others in the group at risk, those who do not
cooperate with us are putting us in danger. Thus whilst we accept a
certain degree of cheating, if enough people cheat the advantages of
cooperation will come to nothing.

Let us take a practical example which affects all us now. Global warming
is now accepted to be partly the result of pollution created by human
beings. Personally I do not accept the inevitable doom and gloom
associated with the topic, but rather take a more practical approach.
Simply put, I do not like a polluted countryside, nor the hot weather or
floods that are sometimes associated with global warming.

I would say that part of the global warming problem is indeed the result
of a partial collapse of this cooperation strategy. You will recall that
one of the definitions of life is an open system that exploits the
environment in order to reduce its internal entropy. By definition we
can exploit an environment if there are resources suitable for us to
exploit. The problem of course is that 6.5 billion people require a lot
of resources. But there is also another problem that is not always made
obvious, although some pressure groups against globalisation do hint at
it, this is that for so many people to cooperate they also need to
overcome the obstacles of distance.

If a resource is extracted in one location and used in the same location
the internal entropy, so to speak, is channelled back into the
environment and affects the same people who used those resources. Thus
if a village have a herd of cows which are used for their milk, meat and
leather, the waste and other externalities of this herd of cows are
experienced by the same village. There must therefore be a reasonable
effort of cooperation if the streets of the village are not to be full
of cow dung, or the meadows denuded of grass or the wastes from the
tanners won't pollute the local stream or river. However, I contend that
the further away we are from the exploitation of resources the less we
become interested in adopting reasonable measures of cooperation.
If we buy a television set in Madrid that is made in a factory in China
that uses polluting power stations or inefficient manufacturing
processes, we feel less inclined to care about that pollution than if
the TV set was made in Toledo using the same polluting technology used
in China. Thus if the Chinese can offer me a hi tech TV set for 300
Euros why should I care about the pollution that goes into generating
this product. Most probably I cannot even find out how much pollution
was created or how people were exploited in making that TV set because
those who stand to benefit from my 300 Euros might themselves not be
affected that much by the pollution because they can live in a city with
clean air etc. etc. Thus, the collapse of cooperation (the manufacturer
pollutes the environment, and us not conscious about the pollution as
long as we buy cheaper products) can make life really fragile. We can
understand fragile here as the effects on health due to pollution, the
indignity, if not harm, of exploitation and so on.

We can now go a step further and ask ourselves: does distance or absence
of negative externalities in our environment, give rise to exploiting
the fragility of a life form? Because fish don't fight back and are
relatively easy to catch, we can feel no qualms in exploiting them
because of there fragility.

Thus although fragility can lead to cooperation, which can collapse for
many reasons, fragility can also give rise to wilfully exploitation life

We can now turn the argument on its head and ask ourselves: are we duty
bound to mitigate our fragility in order not to make it easy for others
to exploit us? Or is fragility a survival strategy? For example, should
fighting bulls try to kill the matador in the bull ring and thus end
bull fighting? Or is the bull's fragility in the bull ring its strength
that makes it a very successful bovine breed? And to finish the
argument, why is it somehow acceptable for bulls to exploit their
fragility to survive as a breed, but not children to work in sweatshops
or peasants to work in slave like conditions in factories?

I might have given the impression that this collapse of cooperation
might lead to ultimate disaster. Some people would want to give that
impression. But you will remember that life, in our case human beings,
receive information from the environment and we react accordingly. You
will also recall that the key factor when considering the goldilocks
effect is not necessarily the extremes or the middle ground, but rather
the stability of the system. Catastrophic events can bring an end to
life either on a grand scale or localised. The ancient object that
impacted in Yucatán in Mexico, some 65 million years ago, destroyed the
dinosaurs that roamed the Earth for even more millions of years.
Earthquakes, storms, tsunamis, floods and so on also show us how fragile
life is.

But catastrophic events can also be due to the strategies we employ
against each other to survive. If commercial and economic relationships
were conducted on the basis of cooperation (some are carried out on this
basis) we would not expect to see child labour or rampant pollution. But
when markets are too incompatible with cooperation we expect consumers
and workers to take the necessary action to mitigate their fragility.
Consumers stop buying goods and services, employees to change jobs or go
on strike and so on. Of course, each of these actions have a consequence
until a new balance is reached. But the point is that life might be
fragile but we can sometimes mitigate against this fragility.

How fragile we are as individuals can best be illustrated by looking at
our state of health and subsequent demise. In an entry in Wikipedia
under the heading, "List of causes of death by rate" there is a table
with the many causes of death world wide for 2002 and the number of
deaths that were tabulated was just over 57 million. The top three
causes of death in 2002 were: Cardiovascular diseases 29.34% of deaths
recorded, Infectious and parasitic diseases 19.12%, and Ischemic heart
disease 12.64%. You will remember that the population of the world is
about 6.5 billion people. Putting this fragility into even more
perspective I found the following statistics for 2006-2007 on hospital
admissions in England (not the UK): Admission Episodes Total 12,976,273
and Emergency 4,700,017 which works out at 36.2% of admissions. The
estimated population of England in 2001 was about 50 million. <13

Although I give these figures as an idea of what I am referring to and
that the figures themselves might not be that accurate, we can still see
that individual life might be fragile but cooperation still mitigates
for some of this fragility for example by providing health care. Once
again we might have to deal with the question why is it that so many
people in the world do not have access to medical health? And as we know
this does not only apply to developing countries but also to some of the
most advanced countries.

And again I do not want to give the impression that by cooperation we
might or can neutralise the fragility of life. If you look at the
original documents of these figures you will see that this fragility is
quite serious. And any examples of cooperation do not necessarily solve
all problems or can solve all problems.

If cooperation which is so powerful has its limitations what else can
affect the fragility of life? I would say that the next most influential
cause is our beliefs. I have already shown how information and knowledge
can be used to mitigate the fragility of our life. So how can our
beliefs play a role in our fragility?

Even beliefs have positive and negative effects on our fragility. For
example, our belief that we would all be better off in our relationships
if we cooperated then surely this would have a positive effect on our
fragility, as I have tried to show. Assuming of course beliefs are
turned into actions. However, if we believe that we are better off
cheating and not cooperating, than this would surely mean a negative
effect on our fragility.

But there are other roles beliefs play in our life and in our fragility.
Beliefs based on emotions can lead us to do good things but also some
serious evil things. Love can lead to helping others and most of all can
also lead to procreation. Although love, of course, is neither a
necessary nor sufficient condition for procreation. However, procreation
is the main objective of life. For there to be life there must be living
entities. But emotions and beliefs can also lead us to hatred and
jealousy. And some of these beliefs can lead to war and discrimination
which surely reflect the fragility of human life. Especially of the
victims of wars or discrimination.

Beliefs not only manifest themselves as a phenomenon in individuals but
we can say, at least for the sake of argument, in collective movements.
Political doctrines, religions, commercial practices, group identity,
culture and so on.

At least we can say so much about ourselves as a group of life form and
as individuals within that human race. Furthermore, the concept of life
being an open system interacting within its environment is also a very
attractive one. This might even lead us to believe that all life systems
function in the same entropy decreasing manner of exploiting the
environment. Of course, the devil is in the detail, but the open system
principle means that life of bacteria is sustained in the same manner as
a human being, an ant or an elephant.

Earlier I said that one of the objectives of life is procreation. And
although by this I do not mean that each individual must reproduce, it
does mean that enough must reproduce to create a critical mass to main
the species. However, population growth has to deal with the Malthusian
Catastrophe <14 which Thomas Malthus identified in his publication in
1798 :An Essay on the Principle of Population. <15 Basically this
catastrophe is: a return to subsistence-level conditions as a result of
population growth outpacing agricultural production. <14

So far this fragility has been averted by technological development, for
example some claim that the industrial revolution might have mitigated
this catastrophe in the past. <14 Today, as I write this essay we are
facing the prospects of a serious recession with food and fuel reaching
unprecedented prices. Some might say that fuel prices were already too
cheap in some countries. So charging more for this commodity is
redressing some imbalances in the system plus the added bonus of
creating jobs in extracting oil from places that would have otherwise
been uneconomical or the real reduction in carbon emissions.

But maintaining a population alive is certainly a challenge for life in
general and the different groups of life forms. This brings me to a
curious paradox of life: are viruses alive? I do not intend to go into
biological details here, but the problem is that although viruses do
have genes they do not have cell structures. And, "although they
reproduce, they do not self-metabolize and require a host cell to
replicate and synthesize new products." <16

The Wikipedia article on viruses outlines the problem as follows: "If
viruses are considered alive, then the criteria specifying life will
have to exclude the cell. If viruses are said to be alive, the question
could follow of whether even smaller infectious particles, such as
viroids and prions, are alive." <16

The virus paradox has implications for the various branches of science
and the philosophy of science that study biological entities. In the
context of exobiology this means that life in other parts of the
universe might not be the same as we know life. Of course, this point is
not lost amongst those who do look for life elsewhere. And although the
debate is technical and highly specialised, from our point of view it
means that if we accept viruses as life form what else should we be
prepared to accept as life form? For example, was I justified in
excluding ghosts and rocks as life forms?

But within the context of our debate the virus paradox is relevant in
the following way. I have already tried to show that sustaining life is
very difficult and fraught with dangers. And although our fragility can
sometimes be mitigated, we have not won the battle nor the war against
this fragility. The accident and emergency services in a hospital should
leave us in doubt on how fragile we are. And the catastrophe that wiped
out the dinosaurs confirms our beliefs that all forms of life are
fragile. The question then is whether viruses are a clever evolution of
a certain life form or whether viruses are an intermediate form of life
between life as we know it and non-living things?

In other words, are viruses a life form with a huge evolutionary
attitude or the twilight zone between the living and the non living? If
viruses are a life form then surely it follows that this is one life
form that has evolved not to cooperate amongst itself since reproduction
is done through other hosts. And in many cases it kills the host it
invades. Not to mention that they exploit other stable systems and
usually increase the entropy in these systems. In other words, viruses
exploit the fragility of other systems.

But if viruses are not life forms then surely genes cannot be the source
of life. However, what should concern us is not what is the source of
life, if not genes, but rather, as the article on viruses points out,
"Virus self-assembly within host cells has implications for the study of
the origin of life, as it lends credence to the hypothesis that life
could have started as self-assembling organic molecules."

The ethical questions we can conclude with are: if some virus like form
of life is the origin of life as we know it, should we be surprised that
cooperation and ethical behaviour do not come easy to human beings? And
should we also be surprised that we find it so easy to exploit other
forms of life or biological systems?

Take care


<1 Wikipedia Habitable Zone (accessed 8-07-2008)
<2 Wikipedia Solar System (accessed 8-07-2008)
<3 Talks Richard Dawkins: The universe is queerer than we can suppose,
TED Conferences, LLC,
<4 NASA: Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology.
<5 Nahle, Nasif S. Exobiology. Article obtained on July8,2008; from
<6 Wikipedia Extremophile Extremophile. (2008, June 13). In Wikipedia,
The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:59, July 8, 2008, from
<7 Weber, Bruce, "Life", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring
2006 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
<8 World population. (2008, July 7). In Wikipedia, The Free
Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:00, July 8, 2008, from
<9 Life. (2008, July 2). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved
14:38, July 8, 2008, from
<10 National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA)
<11 Human genetic variation. (2008, July 4). In Wikipedia, The Free
Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:12, July 8, 2008, from
<12 List of causes of death by rate. (2008, July 4). In Wikipedia, The
Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:44, July 8, 2008, from
<13 The NHS Information Centre, Headline figures, site: and pdf file:
<14 Malthusian catastrophe. (2008, June 28). In Wikipedia, The Free
Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:56, July 8, 2008, from
<15 Thomas Malthus An Essay on the Principle of Population:
<16 Virus. (2008, July 8). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Retrieved 22:07, July 8, 2008, from



**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);

Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: The Fragility of
Life + News

Thursday, July 03, 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Do we have to trust theories?

News from Miguel + Renfe in Sol + Essays from Richard and Me

Dear friends,

First the good news. Miguel has asked me to send you his thanks for your
concern and help after his very bad accident last Sunday. He tells me
that his finger is healing and that he is not pain any more. It seems
that the surgeons at La Paz did a very good job in re-constituting his
finger. He also tells me that if he is feeling well he would join us for
the meeting on Sunday. I look forward to meeting Miguel on Sunday.

Miguel and myself both agree that the moral of this unfortunate accident
is that we should keep our fingers as far away as possible from doors.
Please take note.

Talking about doors, Isabel has sent me details about the new Renfe
service that will now pass from the new, but yet to be finished and
opened, station of Sol instead of Recoletos.

Estimada comunidad universitaria,

El próximo día 9 de Julio entra en servicio el nuevo túnel de cercanías
que conecta las estaciones de Atocha y Chamartín.

RENFE nos ha informado que a partir de esa fecha todos los trenes que
realizan la línea que llega a Cantoblanco cambian su itinerario,
concretamente el trayecto queda configurado de la siguiente forma:

- Chamartin - Nuevos Ministerios - (Sol) - Atocha –

Es importante señalar que ya no habrá paso por la estación de Recoletos.
Las personas que deseen utilizar esta estación deberán hacer trasbordo
en Atocha, Nuevos Ministerios o Chamartin.

En la nueva línea se incorpora la nueva estación de Sol, cuya entrada en
funcionamiento esta prevista para finales de año (no habrá parada por el

La nueva línea implica que se incrementa la frecuencia de paso de los
trenes en hora punta de los 10 minutos actuales a 6 minutos y en hora
valle de 20´a 10´

También se reduce en un 30% los tiempos de los trayectos entre
Cantoblanco y Atocha.

Las antiguas Líneas C-1 (San Sebastián de los Reyes), C-7 (Colmenar
Viejo) y C-10 (Tres Cantos) se fusionan en una sola línea que se
denominará C-4 y realizará el trayecto desde Parla a Colmenar o
Alcobendas-San Sebastián de los Reyes.

En las estaciones se distribuirá información de los nuevos horarios.

Para mas información teléfono gratuito 900.200.212 o en la págian web.

Finally, Richard has kindly written as essay for us, on this Sunday's
topic: Do we have to trust theories? I am including my essay at the end
of the email.

Take care and see you Sunday



+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Yahoo group >> <
-Old essays:
- Blog:
-Group photos:
-My tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147

====== Essay by Richard======

Do we have to trust theories?

Apart from commenting on two points presented here, I would like to
throw a different light on the matter. It does not mean that I argue the
whole point presented by Lawrence. On the contrary, I support it. But I
feel something else must be added here.

First and foremost I am in favour of clear distinction that must be made
between exact sciences and the so-called Humanities. The reason being
that there is a disparity between the two if one wants to compare the
practical results of a given theory, in other words testing its validity.

My impression is that exact sciences are governed by "more absolute"
terms and are less prone to the evolution of the world than the
Humanities are. But whatever the argument is, they are "much more
absolute" in their claims than the humanities.

Obviously, as Kurt Gödel has proven, not everything in exact sciences is
so crystal clear. Kurt Gödel, one of the greatest logicians of all times
by contriving his Incompleteness Theorem, proved this in the 1930s and
since then nobody has managed to contradict him successfully. The
implication of his theory is that however complex any logical system
might be, it will never be complete, because it will always contain more
true statements than it could possibly prove using its own defining set
of rules.

Therefore the character of the respective theories has a slightly
different meaning. Nevertheless this difference has been blurred for the
last couple of decades as a result of an overwhelming impact of the
exact sciences on the humanities. And what we have been observing is a
sort of retreat of the Humanities to the detriment of the advance of
technical sciences supported by the exact sciences. So the sad result is
that even today any PhD thesis in Psychology for example is widely
considered that something is lacking in it if it does not have any
vestiges of mathematics (graphs, statistics, etc). Should really
Psychology and other Humanities knuckle under to that dictatorship of
the exact sciences by compulsory using the tools that belong to the
latter? Some scientists (from technical areas consider that for a
research to be valid and scientific, there should be possibility to
measure the results. Not everything is quantifiable in that sense. Does
it mean that Emotional Intelligence does not exist, it is not scientific
because it has not been measured yet? So it probably belongs to the
sphere of beliefs. I totally disagree, because the humanities must have
a slightly different criteria to follow than those of exact sciences. I
am against the opinion of the eminent biophysicist, Candace Pert, who
states the following:

"Measurement! It is the very foundation of the modern scientific method,
the means by which the material world is admitted into existence. Unless
we can measure something, science won't concede it exists, which is why
science refuses to deal with such non-things as the emotions, the mind,
the soul or the spirit"<1

By saying so she relegates ¾ of any research in human sciences to a kind
of what-not. Obviously wherever it is possible to present such measures,
they ought to be presented but this argument should not be considered as
a sine-qua-non condition.

It is no laughing matter that even within Linguistics, which is my
hobby-horse, some scholars representing Chomsky's tradition do not
consider seriously their own colleagues working in Cognitive Linguistics
because in the syntaxisists' eyes the cognitivists just waffle about
using some mumbo-jumbo and produce very woolly statements (because the
followers of Chomsky are more "substantial", everything in their work is
visible and palpable like in mathematics, contrary to the cognitivists'

Unfortunately or fortunately (depending on the point of view), we live
in today's world in which what counts more is the practical result. If
this is OK everything else is of a secondary importance. "Did they win
last night? What was the score?"

So there is no wonder that a human being in this modern world has become
more orientated towards the results, more and more pragmatically minded
than interested in theories or even beauty as such. We as human beings
(excluding those really interested in arts) are losing our abilities to
appreciate the beauty of emotions and beauty in its own right. "We have
become comfortably numb" (Pink Floyd – "The Wall" 1979) in our cushy
jobs (although for the last 15 years less cushy) and comforts of our
places we live in.

So in these circumstances, who is really interested in theories except
for a bunch of egg-headed people? Most of us have acquired a practical
approach to solving problems and usually we are interested in short-term
solutions. If any theory has no practical positive results in practice,
it is rejected in an off-hand way and discarded or at best put into a
limbo (perhaps the new times will warm it up and make it workable).

Our practical approach to life is unbelievable. If we go to a doctor we
require him/her to put the right diagnosis and treat us so that we could
be well and kicking again. We simply want him/her to solve our health
problem. Who is interested in the theories of the treatment? And this
leads us to the important point concerning all the human sciences (and
Medicine included). The world is not black and white. There are
different shades of grey, apart from black and white. It sounds truism
but do we really understand it that way? We as though under the
influence of practical-approach drugs stemming from exact sciences
demand only clear answers and have them right now. 2 + 2 = 4, is it
right or wrong? But such answers we should not expect from Medicine or
from any of the human sciences, because their theories are sometimes
contradictory not to mention the aspect of a different approach to
certain problems due to the development of a given area of human
activity and the state of knowledge we possess on that particular subject.

Which of us hasn't heard from 5 different doctors, 3 different diagnoses
and 3 different approaches to the treatment? Is it due to their
incompetence? Excluding some cases of crass errors and simple human
errors, why should we not believe our doctors?

Who does not remember the greatest invention of trans fatty acids (late
60s?). They were supposed to positively contribute to our nutrition. The
war on animal fat was proclaimed because of its saturated fat, highly
pernicious ingredient causing the clogging of our arteries. So butter
was banned from the list of products drawn by nutritionists in favour of

And in the meantime we have grown more obese. Heart attacks did not
recede. So another scapegoat or culprit was invented (20 years ago?):
high cholesterol, so no eggs, no fatty animal meat. As we experience an
extraordinary technological acceleration, the contradictions have also
accelerated in the sense that now there are scholars-practitioners
supported by the results of their research programmes that are
absolutely contradictory and done almost at the same time (so would-be
errors are not due to acquiring more knowledge of the subject over the
time). I receive regular newsletters that testify that. The majority not
all researchers are still against high cholesterol and saturated fat.
But there are more voices saying that the core problem are the carbs
especially the refined ones. Almost everyone now condemns trans fatty
acids (so marge "has fallen from grace" in favour of butter). A few
prove that high cholesterol has no bearing on heart attacks: so eat more
eggs because of the vitamins B2, B12, D and E and other important
vitamins and minerals: the ban has been lifted.

Who is right and who is wrong? Here there is no question of an
ideological bias. Political theories one should take with a pinch of
salt before discovering what the author is up to (any quiet political
supporter of a party?).

Are all those people incompetent? I don't think so. Who would risk their
career bringing themselves into ridicule considering their professional
position by being potentially accused of sowing untrue information? Only
some mentally unbalanced people might do so. To some extent there must
obviously be some lobby pressure and interests but I surmise that one
thing is sure: if there were no doubts what actually in the pipeline is
concerning health and nutrition any well known specialist can safely
divulge his/her theories without risking much because these areas have
no certainties. So what is wrong? How can we get out of this mishmash?

What is lacking in human sciences is that magic wand that could take
everything into consideration. Any research even rigorously done will
never reflect actual facts, because it is impossible to separate a human
being from all the variable factors but one (which is being scrutinized,
so that, rightly, it should be isolated) he/she is under the influence
of just to discover what the actual truth is.

So what about putting such theories into practice? Probably most of them
will be valid. One could ask: what? Contradictory theories are valid?
And here we arrive at the crux of the matter I wanted to draw your
attention to. It is called relativism.

In human sciences or even in exact sciences a preconceived idea
prevails, namely that relativism is something negative in itself and
should be banned from the scientific work. We do not understand why it
is like this. One of the extraordinary scientists in the modern age,
Einstein is an author of the matchless relativity that has turned up in
sciences. He has proven that absolute time does not exist even here on
our Earth without resorting to interplanetary trips at the speed of light.

Our lives is fraught with relativism and it has never been taken
seriously into consideration by science. It seems that "times are

Returning to my hobby-horse, Whorf must be mentioned. His idea is known
as Whorf / Sapir hypothesis (which in fact has become a theory in

"We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The
categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do
not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the
contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions
which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the
linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into
concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are
parties to an agreement to organize it in this way — an agreement that
holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of
emphasis; I changed from bold to caps because I am sending the email as
text, Lawrence)

Our opinion is that Whorf fell into that relativism and developed it
exaggeratedly. But he is to a certain degree right when he affirms that
all our knowledge is acquired thanks to the language we use and it has a
preponderant role, because it gets hold of our way of seeing the world.
Every language is

"not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas, but rather is
itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual's
mental activity, for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of
his mental stock in trade" <3

Perhaps Gumperz & Levinson <4 are right in their way of seeing things.
Their strongest argument for relativism is that there is an absolute
absence of the definitive or even accurate translation of a given text
and "let alone ludicrous failure of phrasebooks" (p.1). Humboldt in the
19th century used to call a unique Weltanschaung ( worldview) that
exists in each language (p.2)

Some years ago a new trend called functional medicine turned up (Mark
Hyman). In point of fact the idea is not new: what is at issue is
personalized medicine that goes to the root of the problem and not to
cure the symptoms only. Just to give an example: a simple headache as a
symptom may have completely different causes in different individuals.
So each person must be thoroughly examined so that the actual cause can
be found. This personalized medicine has been around for some time now,
but it has remained in the realms of theory, never or rarely practised.
The practice has been a serial treatment as it were: The other part has
been taken from the holistic medicine that gained roots in Western World
some 30 years ago.

The same trend is observed in nutrition: if you are obese you should go
on a diet like this… Obesity treatment for instance will be carried out
in a different way depending on the person concerned. Up till now a
patient has been pigeon-holed and has been part of the group with a
prescribed diet.

Esther Perel (2007) a family psychologist and therapist proves in her
extraordinary book "Mating in Captivity", (Harper) the same sexual
dysfunctions and other forms of family problems in various individuals
could be successfully treated sometimes in a completely different way.
Everything depends on a personal approach that is adapted to a
particular case. The same treatment will not work with others, whose
background is different.

To sum it all up, the best will be a proverb, but it must be understood
in a very wide sense: one's man's meat is another man's poison.

To finish with, I would like to touch briefly upon two of Lawrence's points.

What is science and what is not? I think Lawrence is a bit too harsh
with himself by saying: "a study of the nature and scope of theory is to
include any discipline that proposes to explain and understand the world
around us". So he relegates Philosophy to a non-discipline, because it
does not explain anything. A philosopher is one who knows how to look
for problems and to pose them rather than explaining them.

I don't intend to split hairs in this forum but as a linguist myself, I
cannot pass by an expression so often heard "to plan for the future". It
is pure pleonasm. Can we plan for the past? Or can we do it for the
present? I know that everyone says so.

Thank you for your attention.
Best wishes to all of you

<1 Pert, C (1997:21) "Molecules of Emotions. The Science Behind Mind –
Body Medicine", Simon & Schuster, NY.
<2 Carroll, John B. (ed.) [1956] (1999:212, 214).
<3 Whorf (1956) "Language, Thought and Reality", Cambridge, Mass.
mentioned by Hawkes, T. (1972:79)
<4 Gumperz, John & Levinson, Stephen (eds) (1996) "Rethinking Linguistic
Relativity", Cambridge University Press

======My comments on Richard's point about the status of philosophy=====

I agree that philosophy is about finding and posing problems, and once
we clarified the nature and the scope of those problems we can
subcontract them, to use Lucian Floridi's idea, to other disciplines.
For example, clarifying a metaphysical problem which is then answered by
physics as Newton and Leibnitz did. The question, as Richard points out,
is whether philosophy is a discipline or not?

We can approach this question in two ways. We can say that because
philosophy tries to find problems with our understand and explanation of
the world around us then it is a discipline since we explain and
understand by striving for better questions. Thus it is a discipline but
it does not look like one. But this might be considered as playing with
words and not defending the status of philosophy.

However, I would consider the second approach more as an argument of
the-last-resort in the same way an ICBM nuclear weapon would be a weapon
of the last resort. In my second approach, I would also invoke the power
of Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. And therefore suggest that
philosophy is a higher level discipline because it finds, clarifies and
poses the problems of other disciplines. But there is a catch here, and
why I call this a last-resort-argument.

Of course, we must be clear here, it is not that other disciplines
cannot find, clarify and pose there own problems, but that philosophy
can take a detached and impersonal view of certain types of problems.
For example, a doctor performing an abortion is doing a medical
procedure on an other human being. However: should the doctor be
performing that medical procedure? is not a medical question but a moral
or social one. And whatever is the answer to the moral question it does
not influence nor affect the medical procedure itself, i.e. the science
part. But philosophy can consider and clarify the problem of abortion by
appealing, for example, to Levitt's conclusions on abortion and crime in
New York, as I do. Just because in our daily life we do demand from
doctors, for example, to make moral or value judgements it does not
follow that they are necessarily the ones who should be make those moral
judgements in the profession. In real life, sometimes they don't. This
would be like saying that because referees know all the rules and
legitimate techniques of football, they should also be the ones who
should play football games. (I am, of course, not suggesting that a
health carer cannot also be a philosopher. Only that we are clear about
the distinction in activities.)

So back to the catch in the second approach, this would be: if
philosophy finds, clarifies and poses the problems of all the other
disciplines than Who finds, clarifies and poses the problems of
philosophy? Ergo, Kurt can only win if we can identify that Who? And
that Who cannot be some form of deity or spiritual being since we are
concerned about the world around us. But if philosophy is the
activity/discipline of the last-resort for all other disciplines then
Kurt must be wrong. So we either find something that is higher than
philosophy or return to the dark ages because of the scepticism this
would lead us.

The activity of philosophy (but not necessarily academics or people
calling themselves philosophers) will probably never come to a halt as
long as there are thinking human beings. In the meantime we have Gödel's
theory to suggest that philosophy is not the end of the road.


====== Essay by Lawrence======

Do we have to trust theories?

The epistemological status of theories is a central issue in the
philosophy of science. It is therefore not surprising that we find a
huge body of studies and research on the topic. The articles in
Wikipedia on Theory* and Scientific Method* are a good introduction to
our topic. So, I do not propose to give a historical account on the
philosophy of Theory.

An obvious answer to our question would be, it all depends on what
theories we are talking about. And if we decide not to trust theories,
we are still faced with what to do next. We can then be sceptical about
the replacement. But the obvious is not necessarily the best
philosophical investigation. One approach we can take is to analyse the
conceptual meaning of theory and then to see if this analysis is itself
sound and valid. The consequence of this analysis, I propose, would be
to consider the question, when does a belief become a theory?

The Wikipedia article on theory makes it clear that there is a big
difference between the common use of the term theory and the scientific
meaning of theory. I am particularly interested in the scientific
meaning of theory. We have more at stake in the context of science.

The question is then, what is science? Or what should we regard as
science? An other obvious answer would be to say what science
departments do in universities. A legitimate start, but a rather one
sided answer. Should we exclude politics, art history, ethics,
philosophy, business and industry? All these disciplines have their body
of theories, not to mention that every discipline has its own way of
research and investigating its subject matter.

Maybe we should broaden our definition of science, at the very least,
for our purposes. I would argue that a study of the nature and scope of
theory is to include any discipline that proposes to explain and
understand the world around us. For example, was Napoleon a
megalomaniac? Was he a short man? These are also facts about the world
not just topics in history. Maybe he was and maybe he wasn't
megalomaniac, but maybe no better or worse than those who came before
him. This is an empirical question which also depends on what we mean by
megalomaniac. As for being short, a Wikipedia article on Napoleon of
Popular Culture, suggests that this was just British propaganda at the
time and the fact is that he was of average height for the time.*

Going back to what we mean by theory, the Article on Theory suggest that
it is a formalised expression of our observation and which is also
predictive, testable and logical. One way we can understand logical here
is what the article on the Scientific Method points at: " any useful
hypothesis will enable prediction, by reasoning including deductive
reasoning." I do not propose to distinguish the difference between
theory and hypothesis, observation and experiment etc. What is relevant
for us is that logic can mean deductive logic (formal logic), inductive
reasoning based on statistical analysis, probabilistic reasoning and so on.

Ironically, the logic criteria for Theory is also the weakest criteria,
in my opinion. For example, deductive logic is silent about the veracity
of a proposition we put in an argument and deductive reasoning can be
abused by emphasising the importance of the methodology and not the
facts. Thus:

a) All martyrs go to heaven,
John is a martyr,
Therefore John has gone to heaven.
b) We should expect to see more miracles from a holy place with 67
recoded miracles over a period of 150 years.**
The problem here is that by talking about John and about holy places we
are really referring to facts about the world, but concepts such as
heaven and miracles are not facts about the world, but what we mean them
to be: your heaven is not as good as my heaven. That sort of problem.
However, both arguments meet the logic criteria. Of course, this does
not tell us much about heaven and miracles, but it does tell us a lot
about logic and its limitations.

I would say that predictability is the strongest feature of Theory
because of two basic reasons (there might be others of course). The
first is that theories can help us predict the future or describe how
past events were like in reality. The second is to answer one of the
most psychological preoccupation we have about life: planning for the

By being able to predict the future or how events really were, we
explicitly imply that the theory can stand on its own merits without
manipulation or fixing things. The ultimate proof of objectivity is to
verify predictions or falsify them. I do not wish to start a debate on
whether Popper was right or wrong here; and I am assuming that any one
can test a theory, but more about this later.

We are all familiar with the use of Newtonian physics to put satellites
in space. But this week there was a report*** in the New York Times
suggesting that a passage that appears in Homer's Odyssey might have
been referring to an eclipse that took place on April 16, 1178 B.C.
Scientists from the Rockefeller University were able to work backwards
in time the eclipses and celestial positions at the time of Homer. What
might have been regarded as metaphor might have been a description of a
fact in Homer. Not only can a good theory work backwards and forwards in
time, but can in this case give meaning to mythology.

Knowing that a theory does in deed work should give us a great deal of
peace of mind. Being able to predict the future also means that we have
the survival edge over most other creatures. Predictability means that
we can plan for the future, for example, our investments, pensions,
bearing children and so on.

Maybe it is because predictability is such a desirable feature that it
can easily lead us to abuse or misuse it. One of these misuses is to
assume that a theory predicts more than it actually does. For example,
Newtonian physics was once thought to be the answer to all questions
about nature from the nature of the mind to all things celestial.
However, it eventually became evident that Newtonian physics could not
explain everything especially the atomic world. But limitations do not
necessarily mean that a theory is wrong. Today, for example, Newtonian
physics and quantum mechanics can easily be employed side by side on the
same project.

If predictability is the benefit of theory, testability is the
combustion engine of theory. No matter how attractive a theory is, if it
cannot be tested it is not worth the paper it is written on. However, we
should be careful what we mean by testability. It is one thing not to
have the means or the tools to test a theory and another to have
untestable concepts. I do not need to give examples to illustrate the
first category, there are many examples easily available after a quick
search of theories that were tested years after they were proposed.

The example of martyrs going to heaven, is conceptually untestable. What
is a martyr? What is heaven? What would we have to do to test whether
martyrs do go to heaven?

However, the example about miracles taking place in holy places can
after a fashion be tested. But first we will have to disentangle the
semantic confusion from, say, medical science. Hence, it is not that in
these places there is regular divine intervention, but maybe in these
places the placebo effect is much stronger. Maybe because people go to
places because they have exhausted conventional medical care and
therefore there is a more urgent need to be cured. Maybe what the
faithful call a miracle are exceptional instances of the human body
curing itself. Something which is well know to those in science. Not to
mention the fact that the tunnelling effect in quantum mechanics is an
instance of the impossible taking place. We are therefore already
familiar with the idea of the impossible taking place in nature. In any
case it is irrelevant whether today's medical knowledge can explain such
cures. Maybe future knowledge might.

Another aspect of testability is that it does not matter who does the
testing. Anyone could have dropped the two different weights from the
tower of Pisa; it would not have mattered whether it was Galileo or not,
both would have fallen at the same speed. If, therefore, the person who
does the testing is also a key feature of the testing most likely we are
not taking about a scientific theory. One point of clarification, I do
not mean here the influence of the observer on the observed as described
by Heisenberg uncertainty principle. I am thinking more on the lines,
for example, that acts of parliament can only become laws if the monarch
gives the royal assent in constitutional monarchies. This is a
convention and not a fact about the world that can be described as a
theory. We cannot test a convention, and being able to distinguish
between the two is very relevant for out debate.

However, a serious problem with testability is that some theories cannot
be tested not because we do not have the mean or tools, but because
morality and ethics prevents us from carrying out the test. For example,
Levitt and Dubner in their book Freakonomics give details of Levitt's
study that showed that the fall in crime rates in New York during the
1990's was more the result of introducing abortion than any other crime
measures. However, we are prevented from testing this theory by having
two cities, one offering abortion services and the other not. Levitt et
al had to use historical data and it is unlikely that this could be
repeated in the form of an experiment.

Once we start analysing the aspects of theory we can find a number of
problems that might stop us from trusting theories. Theories have
limitations either at the testing process or at the prediction process;
I am assuming our observations are not flawed. However, the question "Do
we have to trust theories?" does need some philosophical
disentanglement. For example, what do we mean by trust. Does it mean not
relying on them or does it mean being prudent when using theories. In
fact the scientific method requires us a priori to be prudent when using
or testing theories. And as I have already pointed out, not trusting
theories does not put us in a better position despite their failings.

The problem for us, therefore, is not whether we should or should not
trust something that purports to be a theory, but rather:

a) Is a given theory is a scientific theory?
b) Is a given proposition a theory and or a belief?
If, for example, medical science has an impressive collection of
testable and provable theories does that mean that was is practiced as
medicine is based on a valid scientific theory?

Today we have no problems accepting the claims that unsafe sex increases
the probability of transmitting AIDS to others. And the claim that
smoking can cause lung cancer. Few people would dispute these claims and
those who do might be mixing up emotion (religious beliefs, business
interest) with science (multiple studies and tests).

Dan Ariely's study.+ on pain will make the point about distinguishing
theory from belief clearer. He concludes that the commonly held belief
within the medical community that removing bandages from raw skin or
flesh is best done quickly is basically false. The patient is not better
off if the bandages are removed the traditional way. But if they are
removed slowly but steadily this limits the amount of pain felt.

Ariely argues that this is a belief and not some valid medical
hypothesis since it has never been scientifically tested. The reason why
bandages are removed quickly is because the medical staff are genuinely
concerned about the pain and discomfort felt by patients. The intentions
are beyond reproach, but according to Ariely, it is not really science.
(Ariely himself was a serious burns victim and his experiences in
hospital moved him to study the issue.)

I submit that this is the real philosophical and scientific challenge
about theories. Sorting out theories from beliefs and prejudices fro
facts. And that prudence should replace trust and open mindedness should
replace dogma.

I am therefore not about to stop believing in Newtonian physics and will
certainly keep on believing that the sun will rise tomorrow. What I am
not sure about is what to do next time I burn my hand on a hot stove
when I am preparing diner. My theory is to play safe and let others do
the cooking. Not only have my observations been that I never burn myself
when others do the cooking, but the bonus is that their cooking is
always much better than my efforts. A priori, I can therefore predict
with certainty that if I do not man handle hot pots and pans I reduce
the risk of burning myself in the kitchen. And in the spirit of the
scientific method I will let others test the theory that cooking can
cause burns to the skin.

Take care


Scientific Method,
Napoleon in popular culture


***June 24, 2008
Homecoming of Odysseus May Have Been in Eclipse
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

+Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
By Dan Ariely




**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);

Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Do we have to trust


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