Academic Papers

Brains in Vats & All That – An Analysis of Epistemological Skepticism

Screen Shot 2014-05-15 at 8.14.35 AMDuring the course of our life, we (as humans) take for granted that we know some things about the external world. In fact, we often assume that we know a lot about the external world. We know some things about what happened yesterday, and we certainly know that the yesterday existed. We know that other minds, other than our own exist; we know that tables and chairs exist. We often assume that most knowledge is something that the regular, everyday person can know; it is not specialized for philosophers, historians or scientists. However, there are some things that we simply cannot know. Some future events, for example, are not knowable to us. And if someone claims to know these things, we are justifiably skeptical of that claim.

“While almost all of us are skeptical about some knowledge claims, skeptical arguments in philosophy typically purport to show that we do not know or are not justified in believing many of the things we originality assume we know or reasonably believe.” (quote from Lemos, 2007) Many arguments for skepticism conclude that we are unable to know anything about the external world, or that we are not justified in believing anything about the external world.

There are a variety of skeptical arguments. One of the more common versions is known as human, external world, knowledge skepticism. This kind of skepticism denies that people are able to have certain types of knowledge concerning the external world. However, knowledge skepticism does not automatically entail skepticism for justification. It is possible to hold the position that we are justified in believing certain things, but the evidence is not great enough to count as knowledge. Many of the arguments for external world knowledge skepticism come from various skeptical scenarios that epistemologists refer to as bad case scenarios. There are several arguments for human, external world knowledge skepticism, and three of them are (1) the certainty argument, (2) the infallibility argument and (3) the argument from ignorance.

matrix One of the most important aspects of a proper understanding of  external world knowledge skepticism is a proper understanding  of skeptical scenarios. While they come in a variety of different  forms, the popular movie, “The Matrix”, is a perfect example of a  classic skeptical scenario. In the movie, the characters are all in a  computer simulation run by machines, and that the humans are  actually connected to a complex network of computers that create what they see as the external world. The humans in the program are deceived into thinking that what they see is real, when in reality, it is nothing more than a computer program. When the main character, Neo, is “awakened” by another person, his real body wakes up out of the computer simulation and he sees the truth for the first time. While “The Matrix” is meant to be a fictional story inspired by a classical skeptical “brain in a vat” scenario, external world knowledge skeptics take these types of situations as not only possible, but actual. But, because of our limitations as human beings, we are unable to truly know anything about the external world. Philosophers refer to these skeptical scenarios as bad case scenarios, where pervasive error reigns. These bad case scenarios are not only philosophical possibilities, but they seem to be something that may, in fact, be reality. And because of this, our proper response should be to suspend judgment on what we actually know about the external world.

When we reflect on these examples, it seems clear that our sensory experience does not guarantee that our beliefs about the external world are necessarily true. And initially, that does not really seem to matter. Lots of things are possible, but the real question should be about what is reasonable. Sure, we might be a person in a vat, and our “external world” might be generated by computers. But just asserting the possibility doesn’t give us good reasons to think that we should embrace epistemological skepticism. And that is where philosophers have posited arguments for skepticism.

(more…)

Advertisements

Genetic Engineering and Human Children

regulate-designer-babies_1Most of us would do anything to help our children have the best future possible. We would make sure they had the best prenatal environment, the best diet and be sent to the best schools, all so that they could have the best possible future opportunities. But what would we do if we could, before they were born, alter our child’s genes in order to guarantee that advantage? The choice of genetically engineering our children is rapidly becoming a scientific reality, and we are faced with the question: If we are able to safely engineer a child at the genetic level… should we?

Genetic engineering is a topic that is greeted with a combination of curiosity, skepticism and apprehension. Those in favor of genetic engineering have been accused of “playing God”, whereas those opposed have been characterized as being against scientific progress. Many people view genetic engineering as something confined to the domain of science fiction; something so far in the future that it needn’t be worried about. However, with the advance of modern technology, this attitude towards genetic engineering is not only misguided, but can be dangerous.

Nearly every advance in technology comes with unanswered questions, and genetic engineering is no different. What should we do? What will happen if we make certain decisions? How will our decisions affect society? If we have the ability to do it safely, is it ethically permissible to genetically engineer our children? Is there an ethical difference between genetic enhancement and genetic  therapy? As people living in the time where genetic engineering is a real possibility, it is vital that we address the bioethical issues surrounding this controversial topic. If we procrastinate in this area and do not address these issues before they  come up, we will inevitably make poor decisions that could have been avoided. Like  many advancements in science and technology, genetics provides us with an  opportunity to be good stewards with what we have. But it also offers us a unique  opportunity as well; “… we can begin to determine not simply who will live and who will die, but what all those who live in the future will be like” (Harris & Burley, 2004)

p016q9gp This article is designed as a form of philosophical preventative maintenance,  with very real ramifications for the near future. Because it is meant to address  issues of genetic engineering specifically, other issues will be avoided. I will  assume that genetic engineering will not destroy human embryos and will not  result in any unintended changes. These issues need to be addressed by  scientists, doctors and ethicists today, but will likely be circumvented with the  advance of technology. The purpose of this paper is to ask, “What philosophical  issues arise from genetic engineering itself?”

Many moral philosophers and ethicists, when approaching complex ethical issues, have attempted to lay out a principle of moral reasoning that is designed to answer the question, “what ought I to do?” It seems reasonable, therefore, to follow a basic principle of moral reasoning, and philosopher Kurt Baier explores a fairly simple one in his book, “The Moral Point of View”. According to Baier, “The best course of action is… the course of action which is supported by the best reasons. And the best reasons may require us to abandon the aim we actually have set our heart on.” Baier’s two-step approach involves looking at the relevant facts surrounding an issue and determining the relative weight of those considerations “to decide which course of action has the full weight of reason behind it”. (Baier, 1969) Following this approach, it is our job to critically examine the arguments for and against genetic engineering and to support the most reasonable conclusion, given the strongest available arguments on both sides. (more…)

The Classical View of Reason


Screen Shot 2014-03-01 at 8.45.34 PMHuman beings have several different ways of coming to believe what we believe. While the idea that our senses and even our own introspection may be fallible is surprising to many, it is a relatively common topic considered for philosophical musing that many have considered. Stranger yet is the idea of reason itself, the very rules of common sense that govern our assessment of this data, may too be flawed. But what is really involved in the process of reasoning? Can we trust reason? Can we really know anything by using our ability to reason? Are there some things that can be known without resorting to reason? Philosophers who advocate the classical view of reason have given answers to these questions, and careful examination of the truths of reason reveals that much of what we take for granted in our everyday reasoning may not be as simple as we so often suppose.

Some propositions, upon reflection, seem true simply by definition. Take, for example, the sentence, “All bachelors are unmarried”. Once we understand the terms being discussed, can anyone reasonably doubt the truth of this proposition? It is simply a tautology, substantiated. This sort of proposition is a self-evident proposition. Self-evident truths have two distinct properties. First, they can be known independently of sensory experience. For example, you can conclude all dogs have hair or fur if you adequately understand that all dogs are mammals and that all mammals have either hair or fur. Secondly, self-evident truths are necessary. This is to say that it is not possible for the proposition to be false; it is true on pain of contradiction. For example, to say that you know a married bachelor is contradictory, and shows a lack of adequate understanding of the term bachelor.

thinking_chimps_02

The reason we can know these self-evident truths apart from any deeper  analysis, according to the classicist, is because we can analyze the conceptual  containment relationships within the terms. For the statement, all bachelors  are unmarried, when one refers to a “bachelor”, they are using a term that  (when properly understood) automatically entails unmarried as necessarily  contained within the term. Thus, one can be justified in believing that all  bachelors are unmarried by mere reflection of the containment relationships between concepts. If one adequately understands it, then he knows it and cannot deny it. Analytic truths are immediate and intuitive, and do not require any additional logical inferences to be accepted. As Immanuel Kant established, truths known by an adequate understanding of the containment relationships of concepts are known as analytic truths. (more…)

Virtue Ethics and The “Man of Steel”

Imagine a man who is powerful enough to enslave an entire planet of human beings and use them to satisfy his own desires, whatever those desires may be. Usually someone like this would need a military force behind him, but this man does not. The ‘Man of Steel’ (who everyone knows as Superman) is endowed with the strength of thousands of men, the ability to fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes, and breathe in space. Needless to say, Superman doesn’t need an army in order to become the slave-ruler of the entire Earth. But he doesn’t; in fact, Superman does the exact opposite. He decides that he will protect planet earth and its inhabitants. Why would Superman do this? The answer seems to fall squarely in the explanatory power of Virtue Ethics.

Man-of-Steel-Kal-El

Right off the bat, it seems as though the directors wanted to make it  obvious that Superman’s home planet, Krypton, was an outworking of  Plato’s city analogy. Granted, Plato’s dialogue about the city was not  meant to be a political philosophy, but an analogy to the human psyche,  but Plato’s influence on Superman doesn’t stop there. In fact, some have  observed that the young Clark Kent was gaining some wisdom from  Plato in the movie. Additionally, Plato’s ‘Ring of Gyges’ story seems to  play a pretty significant role in the formation of Superman’s character. His actions are dictated by something other than the consequences of being caught behaving in a certain way.
(more…)

Newly Discovered Functions of “Pseudogenes”

Abstract

Researchers have noted that there are portions of the DNA that look similar to functional genes, but contain lesions or premature stop codons. These genes have been assumed to be largely non-functional, but recent research suggests that many of these ‘pseudogenes’ are actually functional.  This paper is an overview of some of the research done in the area of  pseudogene functionality. I address several recent advances in the  area of genetic research regarding pseudogene functionality  chronologically, starting from one of the first discoveries of a  functional pseudogene and ending with a paper from this year (2013). Broadly speaking, it would seem that the assumption of non-functionality has been overturned regarding many pseudogenes, and the evidence suggests that many more pseudogenes may have a function that has yet to be discovered.

Introduction
pseudogene_important_role_wide Pseudogenes have been typically understood as portions of DNA  that have lost their function and remain in the DNA as a relic that  signifies past functionality. The prefix ‘pseudo-‘ indicates that  something is fake or false, and a pseudogene is a portion of DNA  that looks like a functioning gene, but is not actually functional. Pseudogenes have been placed in the ‘junk DNA’ category, ‘dead’, non-functional by-products of evolution. If a pseudogene is transcribed at all, it is often considered to be largely a neutral process that hasn’t been weeded out by selection. However, recent evidence has shown that many pseudogenes have very important functions in the genome of nearly every organism, humans included. There are very good reasons to revise the definition of ‘pseudogene’ to include a wide variety of biological functions, from gene expression and cellular function to gene regulation and tumor suppression. The newly discovered functions are making the term ‘pseudogene’ notoriously ambiguous. This review will analyze a small handful of functions discovered for pseudogenes that were previously assumed to be non-functional byproducts of genome evolution. It is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of newly discovered pseudogene functionality. Functions are being ascribed to pseudogenes on a fairly regular basis in contemporary genetics literature, and some of the literature is reviewed in chronological order.
(more…)

The Responses of Anuran Species to Varying Levels of Ultra Violet (UV-B) Radiation


Ultra Violet Radiation and Its Role in Frog Ecology and Evolution
Ultra violet radiation, especially UV-B radiation (280 – 320 nm), has been hypothesized to be one of the major contributing factors to the decline of amphibian populations worldwide (Gardner 2001, Houlahan et al. 2000, Keisecker et al. 2001). UV-B radiation has been known to cause an increase in the likelihood of premature death, as well as malformations and deformations in a large number of frog (order Anura) populations (Han et al. 2007, frog_farm Keisecker et al. 2001, Blaustein et al 2003). While the exact effects UV-B  radiation has on frog development is currently being investigated and  debated,  many conclusions can be drawn from past and current  research. UV-B radiation  by itself is a known problem, but when  combined with other factors (pH,  temperature, water depth, mold) it can  cause a synergistic and additive effect  (Bancroft et al. 2008, 2nd  reference, Gardner 2001).

There has also been a variety of research investigating the role of physiological, molecular and behavioral (Han et al. 2007, Blaustein et al. 2003) adaptations in frog populations. These adaptations are in response to the recent increase in UV-B radiation on the surface of the planet, which has been caused by the recent decrease in stratospheric ozone (Bancroft et al. 2008, Diamond et al. 2002). In some cases, the size of the population may also have an influence the effects of UV-B radiation (Houlahan et al. 2000).

Effects of UV-B Radiation on Anuran species
Exposure to UV-B radiation can cause various types of lethal or sublethal effects on amphibians (Han et al. 2007). These effects include genetic deformations, improper development, various forms of skin malformations, and premature death (Diamond et al. 2002). Due to the recent decrease in stratospheric ozone and the decrease in surface water level in frog habitats, there has been a significant increase in the amount of exposure to UV-B radiation in frog populations (Bancroft et al. 2008).

(more…)

You Can’t Bring Them with You – Virtue Ethics & Organ Donation

           Biomedical technology is one of the fastest growing areas of research in modern society. Whether it is reproductive technologies, cloning, genetic engineering or any other topic, people generally approach these with an attitude of both awe and hesitation. Most of us recognize the seemingly limitless potential of new technologies when it comes to curing diseases, elongating lifespans or increasing quality of life. At the same time, we also recognize that these new technologies bring difficult (and seemingly unanswerable) ethical questions. It seems that the reason many people find these questions so hard to answer is that they don’t have a well-established ethical framework from which to answer them. Once we establish an ethical framework, we can explore the answers to the difficult questions. In this paper, I am going to take a virtue ethics perspective on the topic of post-mortem organ donation. I don’t plan on defending virtue ethics as a theory, but I will clarify some of the important issues as they relate to the donation of organs after death.

Screen shot 2014-02-19 at 9.54.50 PM

A brief look at the medical statistics reveals a significant problem; there is ahuge disparity between those who are waiting for organs and the number of organs available. “According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) 83,472 people were waiting for an organ transplant in the United States as of January 2004. From January to October of 2003, 19,101 transplants were performed” (Glannon, 2005). As of today (December 3, 2013), there are 120,845 people waiting for organs in the United States (www.unos.org). The number has increased by approximately 37,000 people in only 9 years, and doesn’t show any signs of decreasing. It is obvious that the human body is a valuable resource, and until medical technology researchers develop fully functional artificial organs, the human body is the primary source for the ‘spare parts’ used in organ transplants. It is also clear that “… we are being prodigally wasteful in our funerary practices and stupidly selfish in our use of vital organs while we live and even more so when we die”. (Fletcher, 1979) So what should we do? Should we donate our organs after we die? When approached from a virtue ethics perspective, we may have a moral obligation to donate our organs after our death. Donating our organs may be how we could continue behaving virtuously even after our life is over.
(more…)

Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans… did they interbreed?

Recent discoveries in DNA have shed light on the relationship of Homo sapiens and extinct hominids, Homo neanderthalensis and Denisova hominins. There is evidence to suggest that all three lived around the same time, and possibly in the same area (Krause et al., 2010)(Meyer et al., 2012). If these three groups lived close together, it should be possible to detect whether or not theyinterbred. If H. sapiens interbred with H. neanderthalensis and D. hominins, we should be able to find genetic evidence of this interbreeding in modern H. sapiens genomes. Using modern genetic examination (Gibbons, 2010), scientists have determined that H. sapiens did interbreed with both H. neanderthalensis (Green et al, 2010)(Hawks, 2013)(Meyer et al, 2012) and with D. hominins (Hawks, 2013)(Meyer et al, 2012).

article-1058538-02B984B100000578-348_468x342Homo neanderthalensis fossils were first discovered in 1856 in Germany, and ever since, scientists have been exploring the relationship of Neanderthals to modern humans. (Gibbons, 2012) The first “draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome” was published in 2010 (Green, et al), and that has given us insight into the relationship of Neanderthal DNA to the DNA of modern humans. Using data obtained by the Human Genome Project (Intl Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, 2001), scientists can compare human and Neanderthal DNA in order to discover the genetic relationship between the two.  The evidence suggests that Neanderthals lived in both Europe and Asia before going extinct around 30,000 years ago (Green et al, 2010). However, many of the Neanderthals interbred with H. sapiens before going extinct. According to Green and colleagues (2010) andHawks (2013), modern humans living outside of Africa represent between 1% and 4% of ancestry from Neanderthal populations. It is possible, with modern genomic technology, for the average person to send a sample of her own DNA to a lab (ex: ‘23andMe’) and get results showing her ancestry. If she has European ancestry, it is possible that she will also have some small percentage of Neanderthal ancestry (Gibbons, 2012). These sorts of results would only be possible had the Neanderthals interbred with direct ancestors of modern humans. Not all of the evidence suggests that Neanderthals interbred with the ancestors of modern humans, however. A study showed that there were no contributions from Neanderthal mtDNA to modern human mtDNA from a specimen recovered from Mezmaiskaya Cave in the northern Caucasus. (Ovchinnikov, 2000) This is not necessarily contradictory data from the other studies; it shows that not all Neanderthal populations interbred with modern human populations.
(more…)

Rethinking Aristotle: The Unwarranted Rejection of ‘Final Causation’ in Modern Evolutionary Biology

Why is the polar bear’s fur white? Why does the snake have the ability to unhinge its jaw? At first consideration, the answers to these questions are fairly straightforward. A polar bear has white fur for camouflage and the snake can unhinge its jaws to eat large prey. However, behind these questions lies a larger question, a question that is not directly answerable by describing the function of a certain feature. This question is of final causation, purpose or teleology. Does the polar bear have white fur because camouflage was the purpose of white fur? Is the snake’s unique unhinging jaw a result of a purposed process, with eating as a goal? Or are these features just the accidental by-products of the purposeless mechanism of evolution? Aristotle was under the impression that you do not fully understand an object unless you understand all of its explanations, including teleology, which Aristotle referred to as ‘the final cause’. Is that standard of explanation accepted today? And if we don’t embrace a teleological explanation today, is that rejection justified?

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 1.46.18 PM

“Aristotle was one of the greatest philosophers and scientists the world has ever seen”. (Dunn, 2005) He was one of the first people to propose a formal logical system, a functioning ethical system, a methodology concerning causality and a systematic way of studying the natural world. During his study of the natural world, he spent a large portion of his time studying life; a field that we now know of as biology. “Aristotle’s studies encompassed the entire world of living things. Many of his descriptions and classifications remain sound today” (Dunn, 2005)

In addition to his study and classification of organisms in the natural world, Aristotle had a very specific way of looking at natural and man-made objects. In Metaphysics, Aristotle explains the 4 different types of aition, often translated as ‘explanations’ or causes’. He believed that in order to fully understand something, you have to understand it in light of the four causes. If you didn’t understand all four of the causes, you didn’t actually understand the object in question.
(more…)