REPOST: Can Effective Altruism really change the world?

What is the most effective way to give? Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry talks about “Effective Altruism” and how it can help you balance emotion and practicality when it comes to giving.

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A relatively recent movement called Effective Altruism has been shaking up philanthropy. The premise is simple: People are concerned how much good the money they allocate toward charity is actually doing. Usually the metric people like to look at is the amount of money a charity spends on overhead, but this is a very gross metric. Yes, a charity that spends almost all its money on overhead is almost certainly criminally ineffective, but for two given charities that spend the same amount on overhead, one may do a lot more good than the other.

Effective Altruism instead looks not only at what percentage of a donation gets to the ground, but what it actually does when it gets there. Organizations like GiveWell look at a host of metrics to determine which charities save the most lives for a given amount of money, and rank them accordingly.

Effective Altruism is obviously a very welcome development in the world of philanthropy, where, too often, feely-goody feelingness obscures metrics and accountability.

That being said, Effective Altruism is not without problems.

First, some — a minority, to be sure — see Effective Altruism not just as a useful tool for philanthropy, but a life philosophy. For example, there is a movement of elite school graduates who get the most remunerative jobs they can find — typically in hedge funds or investment banks — and make as much money as they can, while donating everything beyond necessity. Now, of course, as a Catholic, I can only commend supererogatory almsgiving. But there is still something unsettling here. After all, the implication seems to be that taking a high-paying job selling fraudulent mortgage-backed securities is more praiseworthy than taking a low-paying job at the local homeless shelter, so long as one buys enough anti-malarial bed nets. It’s almost as if charitable giving was a kind of moral offset, like compensating for your carbon footprint. But the idea of a moral offset is ridiculous: If I buy enough bed nets to save 12 people in Africa, do I get to go on a murder rampage?

Besides this rather eccentric utilitarianism, there is a problem more closely linked to Effective Altruism, which is a measurement problem, as the writer and statistician Leah Libresco notes. I mentioned bed nets because that is mostly what Effective Altruism amounts to: It measures what is immediately and visibly measurable, a problem known as the Streetlight Effect.

There is a very good argument to be made that the most pressing of the developing world’s problems is the lack of strong institutions that can prevent corruption, tyranny, and war and guarantee the kind of educational and public health infrastructure the first world enjoys. The Christian charity International Justice Mission tackles precisely this problem, one grinding step at a time, working with local communities to make institutions such as police departments less corrupt. I bet that would be scored terribly by Effective Altruism methods. (Not that it could meet its utilitarian criteria for review.) The founder of IJM Gary Haugen argues in The Locust Effect that this sort of thing is a necessary precondition to fixing the third world. Maybe Haugen is wrong. But if he was right, and we were all Effective Altruists, we would never know. Zillions of bed nets later we would have done a lot of good, but we wouldn’t have come closer to enabling true human flourishing among the word’s poorest billion.

Or, to take another example: Medical research is inherently speculative, and any individual donation probably doesn’t do a difference, but no one doubts that in aggregate medical research has been the single most powerful force in saving lives in the past century.

The point is this: Effective Altruism, while very welcome, is not an “objective” look at the value of philanthropy; instead it is a method replete with philosophical assumptions. And that’s fine, so long as everyone realizes it.

Meanwhile, making the world a better place is an inherently speculative behavior — if we knew how to do it we’d have already done it. Therefore the most prudent collective thing to do is to try a very wide swath of different approaches rather than a single one. As one approach in the menu, Effective Altruism is great, but don’t think it’s the single approach.

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REPOST: ‘Philosophy is for posh, white boys with trust funds’ – why are there so few women?

This article shares the possible causes of philosophy’s persistent male dominance.


Philosophy stands out among the humanities: it’s one of the few subject areas where women are vastly outnumbered by men.

Although male and female students take philosophy undergraduate courses in almost equal numbers, the number of women who pursue a career in philosophy is much lower. A recent report by the Equality Challenge Unit found that, among non-Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, philosophy is one of the most male-dominated, with men accounting for 71.2% of the profession.

Why aren’t there more female philosophers? And how can university departments become more inclusive?


Jennifer Saul

‘We’re starting to make some small bits of incremental progress in fighting a problem that’s been going on far too long.’ | Image Source:


Professor Jennifer Saul, head of philosophy department, University of Sheffield
When I was a PhD student at Princeton in the 1990s, nobody that I knew was talking in any kind of systematic way about women in philosophy. I remember just one conversation, on a train, in which several of us women PhD students remarked on how little we spoke in seminars, and swapped some tips on how to overcome the fear of speaking that had somehow come upon us only once we hit grad school – “Get used to your voice! “Try asking ‘how do you spell that name?’”

It wasn’t until many years later that I started getting to know women who did get together to talk about these issues. Then I learned facts – that women are only 17% of full-time academic staff in philosophy in the US (the UK’s a bit better with 29%). And I learned that this was worse than in most fields of science, where gender disparities have long been a source of concern. I wanted to learn more about the range of women’s experiences – good and bad – in philosophy. So I decided to create a blog where people could share brief anonymous anecdotes.

What I received shocked me. It was a deluge of stories –10 or more a day, almost all tales of horrendous sexual harassment. This wasn’t the sort of open-to-interpretation stuff that I’ve found many expect. This was the distinguished visiting speaker whose first words are: “Show me a grad student I can fuck”. This was woman after woman leaving philosophy after being harassed, assaulted, or retaliated against. It was bad, and it was a torrent. (And the stories and help requests that came to me off-blog were even worse.) The profession was shocked, and galvanised.

Since the blog started, there have been several very public high-profile sexual harassment scandals in philosophy. And there’s now starting to be a backlash against the feminists who have “taken over the profession” and who are now said to wield enormous power to persecute.

The truth is we’re not running the profession: we’re still down at 17-29%. We’re starting to make some small bits of incremental progress in fighting a problem that’s been going on far too long. This is an enormous source of hope, for me. But it’s far from a complete turnaround. And we have even further to go with other issues. As male as philosophy is, for example, it is far, far whiter – and philosophers are barely beginning to address this problem.


To my knowledge there are just five black philosophers working in the UK, three of whom are women – and I’m one of them.

‘To my knowledge there are just five black philosophers working in the UK, three of whom are women – and I’m one of them.’ | Image Source:


Patrice Haynes, senior lecturer in philosophy, Liverpool Hope University
Education was valued highly by my Caribbean parents, especially mathematics and the sciences – serious subjects that would set you up for a secure, professional job. When I declared that I was going to do a master’s in philosophy my father was pretty horrified. Philosophy is for posh, white boys with trust funds.

My father’s image of the uselessness of philosophy reflects a wider suspicion outside (and even inside) academia that it’s merely a relic of the past, languishing in the shadows of science.

In some sense my father is right: pursuing an academic career in philosophy is rather cavalier, for there’s no guarantee of a job at the end of many years of study. I suspect this may explain why ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the discipline. Add to this philosophy’s eye-blinding whiteness and it is easy to see the lack of appeal.

To my knowledge there are just five black philosophers working in the UK, three of whom are women – and I’m one of them. At philosophy conferences, I’m typically the only black academic among the delegates, and often I’m one of the few women present – unless it’s a feminist philosophy conference, in which case the number of men can be counted on one hand…

To date, I’ve not encountered any direct racism or sexism in academia (excluding the presence of this in the western philosophical cannon). Yet it’s worth noting that neither I nor the two UK-based black women philosophers are employed by standalone philosophy departments: this threshold remains to be crossed. Moreover, while there are few women philosophy professors there are zero black philosophy professors in UK institutions.

Occasionally, I’ve been told by American academics, usually middle-aged males: “They’ll love you in America. All you need to do is mention you’re a black woman in your application and you’ll be in!” I’m not entirely convinced. After all, although the American Philosophical Association has 11,000 members, there are only 30 or so black women philosophers based in US philosophy departments. More problematically, while such comments are no doubt well-meant they also raise the dreaded spectre of tokenism. Hard-earned academic achievements are overshadowed by one’s ability to improve the diversity profile of a department by 100%.

Stella Sandford, professor of modern European philosophy, Kingston University
Academic disciplines and practices are not immune from the tendency of societies to “gender” everything. They are fully part of the social-cultural world, even if people often consider them to be remote.

But there are also reasons internal to the discipline itself. In comparison with other subjects philosophy tends, still, to be very inward-looking. It tends to define itself rather narrowly and has found it extraordinarily difficult to accept challenges to its traditional ways of doing things.

Other disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences were generally quick to respond to the ideas of the social movements of the past half-century, but for a long time philosophy remained indifferent to these. The kind of philosophy that dominates in the UK has tended to see itself as engaged in a purely rational practice uninfluenced by social and political contexts. It hasn’t therefore been able to see the ways in which it in fact mirrors the interests of its relatively narrow band of practitioners and excludes others.

In the wake of the women’s movement, for example, most Anglophone philosophers clung on to the idea that thinking about gender belonged to sociology and had nothing to do with them. The groups most affected by these social movements didn’t – perhaps they still don’t – see their concerns taken seriously in philosophy. It is little wonder if they choose to study in more hospitable areas.

Helen Beebee, Samuel Hall professor of philosophy, the University of Manchester
In philosophy, the ability to think with exceptional clarity and rigour about very abstract issues is highly valued, and rightly so; but this is, of course, a stereotypically male virtue. And that means that women have to be that much better than their male counterparts in order to be judged to have the same level of ability. That’s just the way stereotypes work: it’s much easier to think that someone is an intellectual giant if that’s a quality that fits neatly with other things you know about them.

It’s really hard to tell when or whether you’re the object of these kinds of biases. If you don’t get a job or get your paper accepted for publication, there are always other possible explanations.

But there is at least good general evidence – if not specific to philosophy – that stereotypes can explain, at least in part, the relative lack of success of women and other minority groups.

And there are personal experiences. I’ve sat in plenty of meetings and seminars where women’s views have been accorded less respect than those of the men in the room.

My own level of standing within the university hierarchy has, throughout my entire career, been systematically underestimated by colleagues.

As a 40-year-old head of department, when I arrived at a meeting for heads of department one of the other heads (a woman) said: “Oh, I’m sorry, student reps aren’t invited to this meeting.” Early on in my career – in my late 20s and early 30s – I took to wearing a suit in the first few weeks of the academic year, in order to save people the embarrassment of mistaking me for an undergraduate (and this is in institutions where the chances of someone being a mature student were pretty low).

These days, like most of my male colleagues of whatever age, I don’t bother; nobody mistakes me for an undergraduate. But they do – and I’m 46 – routinely mistake me for a PhD student or a postdoc, unless I very quickly say or do something that makes that assumption untenable.

I sometimes think I should cultivate the look of the stereotypical woman professor. I’m not sure what that look is, but minimally I think you have to have grey hair and be over 50. So, if I stop dyeing my hair, I won’t have long to wait.

Katharine Jenkins, PhD candidate, department of philosophy, University of Sheffield
I started thinking about the situation of women in philosophy when I was studying for my MPhil. Some undergraduates reported that women spoke in seminars much less often than men, and as the graduate student representative, I helped raise this issue with the philosophy faculty.

Initially, there was some resistance to the idea that this was an issue of gender, as opposed to simply an unavoidable problem caused by some students being “shy”. But we surveyed the students and found that this was indeed a gendered phenomenon.

Discussions in philosophy are often conducted in a very aggressive and combative way, and given that social norms discourage girls and women from behaving in these ways, it’s hardly surprising that these modes of discussion make some women feel less than fully at home.

This problem can be addressed quite straightforwardly by having seminars that are more closely moderated so as to help make them less combative. This is good for anyone who might be put off by a very aggressive environment, and I also think it encourages more nuanced philosophical engagement.

Richard Pettigrew, professor and head of the department of philosophy at the University of Bristol
You often hear people speculate that the adversarial nature of some philosophical debate is offputting for women because they are less comfortable in combative situations. I don’t see any evidence of this. But it is certainly true that women tend to be judged negatively by others if they display adversarial behaviour.

It seems that women in a philosophy debate are in a lose-lose situation. Either they perform well by the standards of the debate, but then they are judged negatively on their character — they are judged “abrasive” or “high maintenance” for behaviour that would have earned a man plaudits such as “competent” and “knows his mind”. Or they behave in a way that will attract less opprobrium, but then they are judged negatively on their philosophical ability.

Another factor is unconscious bias – where we evaluate a person’s performance on a task more negatively if they belong to a group that is stereotyped as being bad at that task.

What to do? On the one hand, we need to try to change the stereotype. We can do this by creating gender-balanced reading lists for our courses, by ensuring that there is a gender balance in the rostrum of speakers at our conferences, in our seminar series, and on the boards and committees of our journals and learned societies.

We also need to mitigate the effects of unconscious bias by anonymising where possible, whether it is in undergraduate grading or in hiring procedures, and by training all staff in the known ways of reducing bias.

Male philosophers must become more involved. If the burden of combating the under-representation of women in philosophy is borne disproportionately by women, this will deprive them more than is fair of the time they have to devote to their research and teaching, which is how philosophers build their careers. Men must be equal partners in combating the problem.

Dr Meena Dhanda, reader in philosophy and cultural politics, University of Wolverhampton
Women in academia, generally speaking, are up against the usual pressures – keeping families together and looking after students. Many tend to find their voice later in life than men. Finding the right words and the right milieu within which to express our philosophical thoughts is a difficult task.

Much of mainstream philosophy is tame and taming, precisely because it is engaged in reproducing privilege.

Feminism and anti-racism are only superficially incorporated within the language of cultural politics. Perhaps that’s why the position of black and minority ethnic women in philosophy remains annoyingly low. Few think that anything needs to be done to undo the effects of continuing implicit gender or racial biases within the curriculum, in hiring practices or in the progression of teaching staff.

My recent interdisciplinary and collaborative study for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, UK, entitled Caste in Britain, which outlines the implications of making caste as an aspect of race in the Equality Act 2010, uses philosophical tools, without naming any philosophical theories.

It will not be seen as a philosopher’s work, given the orthodoxies entrenched in our subject. I know this; but still think that if philosophy were to become more open to women’s insistence on thinking through the implications of our embodied existence – an existence enmeshed by identity markers such as gender, race, caste or class – then many more similar projects need to be undertaken.

The thorn of racism is so deep in the flesh of philosophy that it is no longer visible from the surface. It hurts. We need more black philosophers, women philosophers – adventurers and heretics, unruly, rigorous and untiring thinkers, committed to making philosophy respond to the world we inhabit.


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REPOST: How churches can attract younger people: Column

Churches are facing massive challenges as fewer young people fill in the pews of the houses of worship. Read the article below:


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Look around the pews on Advent Sundays and you’ll see faces you didn’t see in July. The holidays present a unique opportunity for congregations to bring in new members seeking a spiritual home, and one demographic churches would love to see more of is young adults.

A 2012 survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that a third of adults under age 30 had no religious affiliation, compared with 9% of senior citizens. More worrisome for congregations thinking about future membership, Millennials are twice as likely to be unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were at the same age.

So how to bring them in? Unfortunately, the first impulse church leaders have — add guitars to services and get on social media — is misguided. The thinking is that “if only we had a better Facebook, Twitter and Instagram presence, people will come!” says Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of the new book Got Religion?: How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back.

The reality is more complicated, but congregations that get it right can reap the rewards of having young members contributing to community life.

Treat young like adults

As Riley researched youthful congregations, she found a few things. First, “if you treat young adults like adults, they’ll act like adults,” she says. In many congregations, leadership roles automatically go to older people. But “most of the responsibilities associated with religious communities — dealing with accounting, prayer in services — they are all things 25-year-olds are perfectly capable of doing.” Somebody just needs to ask.

Steven Castello, the 32-year-old pastor at Ardent Church in Birmingham, Ala., says that’s what he does. “We throw people into the deep end,” he says. “You are going to serve. A lot of our leaders are young.”

Treating young adults as adults also means taking their lives and spiritual journeys seriously. Logan Dagley, the young professionals pastor at Summit Church in Durham, N. C., says that his church’s biggest demographic is 25- to 29-year-olds, in part because Summit “makes sure that we’re actually answering the problems and the challenges that they have.” What does it mean to live the Gospel as a single person? Prayers can be about job searches and financial troubles, not just the health woes of the middle-aged.

Second, Riley found that young people are incredibly locally focused. They want neighborhood churches. Urban Millennials forgo car ownership, and even in other regions, “they’re looking for an authentic community,” says Dagley. So Summit gets all members involved in small groups, and “instead of one massive building, we plant local campuses in as many communities as we can in our city.”

‘Do life together’

Ardent likewise organizes all members into communities of 15 people who “do life together,” says Castello. “We talk about being a family, and we mean it.”

To be sure, plenty of churches have small groups and welcome volunteers, but still struggle to bring young people in. Some of this is just practical. The post-college, pre-kids time is often too transient to justify a church commitment. Plus, there are philosophical reasons that some Millennials shy from traditional congregations.

Jordan Brown felt God calling him to be a preacher about the same time he figured out he’s gay. He came out at age 22 to his family and church, and “the church part didn’t go so well,” Brown says.

So he decided to found the Church of Open Doors in Austin. With its message of tolerance, the church mostly draws members who are ages 20-35. According to the Pew Research Center, 69% of young people support gay marriage vs. 40% of those ages 65-plus. If a church is perceived as intolerant, it will struggle to bridge that gap.

But many mainstream denominations now welcome gay and lesbian members, and there are plenty of unchurched types among Millennials with more traditional views, too. It’s often the other puzzle pieces that are missing. Brown notes that at Texas mega-churches, the younger crowd often doesn’t connect. “So what these churches are doing now is breaking off into smaller groups,” he says. “That way, you can actually engage and learn about the people that you’re consistently going to church with.”

Ask twentysomethings to lead these groups, and you just might see more coming into the fold

Hello! I’m Lou Habash, a professor of philosophy at King’s College. Follow me on Twitter for more insights on different philosophical studies.

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Give me a reason: Inductive vs. deductive reasoning

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Reason is an integral part of man’s understanding. Gut feelings, instincts and assumptions cannot be categorized as reason. They must supported by factual evidence to become valid. In a logical argument, there are two ways two present reasons:

Inductive reasoning

Inductive reasoning involves gathering specific information to make a general conclusion that can be considered probable but not exactly accurate. You can say that, for example, John is a doctor and all doctors are smart, therefore John is smart. You can see the logic of the argument but you can’t be 100 percent sure that John is smart. This is the case for most inductive inferences.

Induction is a future-oriented method of reasoning. From the collected specific facts, we come to a conclusion of what may be true in the future. To prove an induction false, all you have to do is find the exception to the conclusion presented in the argument.

Deductive reasoning

Deductive reasoning is the opposite of inductive reasoning. In this method, a general conclusion is made first before gathering the evidence to either prove or disprove it. A valid deductive argument is when the conclusion follows the premise. For example, the deduction is that all doctors are smart. The premise is that John is a doctor and so the conclusion is that John is smart. Although the conclusion is not necessarily accurate, the argument can still be considered valid because there are no facts contradicting it.

Deductions are past or present oriented. The premises presented in the argument determine its validity. If one of the premises is proven false, then the deduction is invalid.

The two methods are different but can be very useful in obtaining relevant conclusions and developing theories. They are a means to achieve knowledge and understand philosophy better.

Lou Habash is a professor of philosophy at King’s College, New York. Follow him on Twitter for more insights on philosophy and life.

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REPOST: Is Buddhism A Religion Or A Philosophy?

This article points out that whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy, it only boils down to our own definition of the term ‘religion.’


Is Buddhism A Religion Or A Philosophy?

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Buddhism is defined in many ways by different people. While some call it a religion that seeks to preach particular dogmas that are essential for human beings, others call it a philosophy that seeks nothing more than driving humans towards the truth and the right form of existence. However, coming to speak of it, whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy boils down to our own definition of the term ‘religion’.


According to most religious persons who have dedicated their lives towards advancing the cause of religion, religion is a top down concept wherein an entity or a deity that has existed in the past commands supreme power and influence. In order for us as humans to be empowered in our lives and give purpose to our lives, religion speaks of worshipping that deity. That is what religion actually means, this, as defined by us. Coming to defining a philosophy, the definition varies substantially. A philosophy does not speak of a deity or an entity that we need to bow down before. Philosophy teaches self improvement and self empowerment. Now that the basic difference between religion and philosophy is understood, let us go on to see if Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion. Going by the actual definition of the terms, Buddhism is no religion, it is a philosophy. This is because of one main reason- there doesn’t exist a deity that we need to bow down before in Buddhism. It speaks of concepts that relate to empowering the self through the self. Thus, it is a bottom to top approach towards understanding the truth and the purpose of existence. Buddhism seeks to unlock the potential of every human being so that he or she can contribute to the development of society to make the world a happier place, thereby taking the planet earth to a higher positive vibration. Thus, in the various angles that Buddhism is addressed, in all its entirety, it is actually a philosophy- a philosophy that adorns righteousness and justice for mankind.

Lou Habash teaches philosophy classes in King’s College, New York. Learn more about philosophical thoughts by visiting this blog site.

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REPOST: Science and philosophy probe the emotional lives of animals

Do animals have feelings like humans do? Joe Gelonesi of writes an article about the philosophical arguments that have been made to answer that question.

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Pythagoras was never the same after his gap year in Egypt. As it turned out, the gap lasted 10 years, and filled his head with mathematics and geometry, as well as an overall outlook on life that would find some sympathy today. He dressed like the locals, wearing linen and papyrus sandals, as the Egyptian priests would not wear clothing or shoes made from the pelts of animals. Moreover, he foreswore the killing or eating of animals. The Pythagoras of Ovid’s Metamorphoses pleads for compassion for suffering beings, including oxen, sheep and goats: beasts of the earth that help man without complaint. Thus, we have the first animal-friendly philosopher in the western tradition. Pythagoras also went on to free his slave and become his friend, only a couple of millennia ahead of the curve.

However, after Pythagoras the road is long and arduous. By the Middle Ages, the relationship between humans and animals was showing serious strain. As philosopher Stephanie Theodorou explains, one thinker in particular helped set the scene for centuries-long attitudes that have been difficult to shift.

‘[Thomas] Aquinas, for various theological reasons, argues that animals lack intrinsic value and he argues that we are superior to all other lives, and this reflects the classical hierarchy of being,’ she says.

In Aquinas’ cosmic scale of importance, all creatures are ranked according to their ability to consciously reflect and understand God as the absolute truth.

‘The further down one goes, the less mind one has and is therefore less able to understand God. As a consequence animals fall below us,’ says Theodorou.

By the time Descartes arrived on the scene the fate of animals was sealed.

‘Descartes in the early modern period is famous for his negative attitude to animals, stating that animals are basically machines and his thinking is echoed by today’s hardline materialists like Daniel Dennett,’ says Theodorou.

The modern materialists such as Dennett assail the sensibilities of those like Stephanie Theodorou and her collaborator Leon Niemoczynski, who have been working on a project that tries to comprehensively document animal experience, taking in what we know through science along with 2500 years of western thought. Both are committed to shining a light on the inner lives of animals as a way of changing deeply embedded, damaging beliefs.

Both have had to get their heads around a good deal of animal science and ethology, researching and reading widely. Perhaps the best shortcut they’ve come across is provided by renowned evolutionary biologist and friend of the animals Marc Bekoff.

Niemoczynski credits Bekoff as providing a firm platform for a big intellectual deep dive. ‘Bekoff … argues that science reveals that there is core of primal emotions hard-wired into the evolutionary limbic system, in the amygdala, which is the oldest emotional part of the brain. Human beings have this as well, as do fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds. So what it boils down to is that we share [with animals] the same neural mechanisms that produce these emotions,’ says Niemoczynski.

‘What Bekoff is suggesting is that in some cases even without a neocortex—the higher order thinking part of the brain—animals can still experience emotions.’

Niemoczynski and Theodorou, from their base in the philosophy department at Immaculata University, near Philadelphia in the USA, have compiled an open access book, available online. It charts developments in the science of animal emotions in detail. What makes it such a far-reaching document is that it is backed up by a thorough compendium of philosophical thought through the eons, beginning with Pythagoras and ending with modern day attempts to revive animism.

We can all intuit through life with our pets that something is going on inside them—animals relay an inner life in much the same ways that we do. Niemoczynski and Theodorou have assembled a range of readings which explore in depth this broadcasting of consciousness and cognition. From dolphins whistling when called by their first name, to the cries of lost domestic kittens, the pair builds a case for the inner experience.

For them, perhaps the most persuasive arguments for animal emotion involve animal suffering, from anxiety in rats to the grieving of Asian elephants.

‘Elephants have elaborate rituals and behave in ways that suggest an internal experience of grief,’ says Niemoczynski. ‘There are elephant graveyards where elephants caress the bones of their dead. Wolves too, who’ve lost family members in the pack, have been known to grieve their losses. There are many anecdotes that suggest that animals feel the pain of losing a loved one. We believe this has important ethical consequences.’

Still a philosophical hesitation lingers: how do we know that they feel like we do? In the famous essay What is it like to be a bat?  distinguished contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel ponders the difficulties in making the breakthrough connection as part of his argument against reductionism in the mind-body debate. It’s hard enough trying to reckon with other human minds, let alone cracking the subjective experience of a bat, argues Nagel.  Theodorou, however, is not put off by the ‘other minds’ problem.

‘We tend to anthropomorphise … we have to be aware of that,’ she says. ‘On the other hand, Nagel’s argument gives credence to the idea that there really is some meaningful inner life even in a bat.  The bat’s perceptual system is organised differently from ours, as it’s based on echolocation and sonar. So we’ll never know how a bat processes this form of experience from its perspective, but it still supports the idea that there is an experience to be had: it’s real.’

Bekoff himself is often asked the same question. In an interview for a documentary about his life and work, he summarised his stance: ‘A lot of people say to me, “how do you know what dogs feel; they can’t talk to us?” One retort is, “how do you know they don’t?”  My argument is that we should err on the side of animals, because what we believe animals feel informs how we should treat them.’

Although Aquinas and Descartes set some precedents that are hard to dismantle, other big thinkers on the trail have left important contributions to the discussion. One was Alfred North Whitehead, writing in the early part of the 20thcentury. For Niemoczynski, Whitehead is a crucial figure in any rehabilitation of the relationship between humans and animals.

‘What Whitehead suggests is that reality is experiential. He’s in a camp of philosophers known as panpsychists, meaning that awareness and a primitive form of consciousness is present pretty much everywhere,’ says Niemoczynski. ‘He follows the Darwinian line of thinking, which states that differences between non-humans and humans are not of kind, but by degree. So the feelings you and I have are also had by other forms of life.’

Niemoczynski sees this as incredibly important.  For him, it acknowledges a basic tenet of how life really works.

‘It projects into the future new forms of animal ethics that recognise animal feelings, and that the evaluative nature of experience
is emotive.’

For Theodorou, this idea of a continuity of feeling in the chain of life can also be found in the work of one of the greats of German philosophy.

‘I’m reminded of Arthur Schopenhauer,’ she says. ‘He saw animals as valid expressions of what he calls nature’s will-to-be, so they are to be respected as such. He drew quite a bit of that from eastern philosophy, from Hinduism. Schopenhauer as a western thinker tries to unite humans and animals through this notion of the will; both animals and humans willing themselves into being and thus both having an emotional relationship to the world.’

Through exploring creaturely will Schopenhauer works his way to the notion of suffering as the affective value that most securely binds us all. For Niemoczynski, this remains the prize argument.

‘Schopenhauer did in fact have an animal ethics that was based on suffering. He said that suffering should be the basis of ethics for all life and that we should be able to empathise with all creatures who suffer.’

It’s taking some time to clarify confused ideas about the inner lives of animals. However, as Theodorou and Niemoczynski are painstakingly showing, science and philosophy can combine to liberate a new way of thinking, which in fact could turn out to be as old as Pythagoras’ papyrus slippers.

Lou Habash discusses philosophical questions such as this in his class at King’s College, New York. Discover more articles like this from his blog.

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REPOST: Philosophy begins where physics ends, and physics begins where philosophy ends

There has always been a struggle between physicists and philosophers on who is right — science or reason? In this article from, writer Ashutosh Jogelakar explains how the two are correlated.

Richard Feynman - Philosopher (Image: Washington University) | Image Source:

Richard Feynman – Philosopher (Image: Washington University) | Image Source:

Physicist Sean Carroll has some words of wisdom for physicists who might have less than complimentary things to say about philosophy. The most recent altercation between a physicist and philosophy came from Neil deGrasse Tyson who casuallydisparaged philosophy in a Q&A session, saying that it can be a time sink and it doesn’t actually provide any concrete answers to scientific questions. Now I am willing to give Tyson the benefit of doubt since his comment was probably a throwaway remark; plus it’s always easy for scientists to take potshots at philosophers in a friendly sort of way, much like the Yale football team would take potshots at its Harvard counterpart.

But Tyson’s response was only the latest in a series of run ins that the two disciplines have had over the past few years. For instance in 2012 philosopher David Albert castigated physicist Lawrence Krauss for purportedly claiming in his most recent book that physics had settled or at least given plausible answers to the fundamental question of existence. In reply Krauss called Albert “moronic” which didn’t help much to bridge the divide between the two fields. Stephen Hawking also had some harsh words for philosophers, saying that he thought “philosophy is dead”, and going further back, Richard Feynman was famously disdainful of philosophy which he called “dopey”.

In his post Carroll essentially deconstructs the three major criticisms of philosophy seen among physicists: there’s the argument that philosophers don’t really gather data or do experiments, there’s the argument that practicing physicists don’t really use any philosophy in their work, and there’s the refrain that philosophers concern themselves too much with unobservables. Carroll calls the first of these arguments dopey (providing a fitting rejoinder to Feynman), the second frustratingly annoying and the third deeply depressing.

I tend to agree with his take, and I have always had trouble understanding why otherwise smart physicists like Tyson or Hawking seem to neglect both the rich history of interaction between physics and philosophy as well as the fact that they are unconsciously doing philosophy even when they are doing science. For instance, what exactly was the philosophy-hating Feynman talking about when he gave the eloquent Messenger Lectures that became “The Character of Physical Law“? Feynman was talking about the virtues of science, about the methodology of science, about the imperfect march of science toward the truth; in other words he was talking about what most of us would call “the philosophy of science”. There’s also more than a few examples of what could fairly be called philosophical musings even in the technical “Feynman Lectures on Physics”. Even Tyson, when he was talking about the multiverse and quantum entanglement in “Cosmos” was talking philosophically.

I think at least part of the problem here comes from semantics. Most physicists don’t explicitly try to falsify their hypotheses or apply positive heuristics or keep on looking for paradigms shifts in their daily work, but they are doing this unconsciously all the time. In many ways philosophy is simply a kind of meta, higher level look at the way science is done. Now sometimes philosophers of science are guilty of thinking that science in fact fits the simple definitions engendered by this meta level look, but that does not mean these frameworks are completely inapplicable to science, even if they may be messier than what they appear on paper. It’s a bit like saying that Newton’s laws are irrelevant to entities like black holes and chaotic systems because they lose their simple formulations in these domains.

My take on philosophy and physics is very simple: Philosophy begins where physics ends, and physics begins where philosophy ends. And I believe this applies to all of science.

I think there are plenty of episodes in the history of science that support this view. When science was still in a primitive state, almost all musings about it came first from Greek philosophers and later from Asian, Arab and European thinkers who were called “natural philosophers” for a reason. Anyone who contemplated the nature of earthly forces, wondered what the stars were made up of, thought about whether living things change or are always constant or pondered if there is life after death was doing philosophy. But he or she was also squarely thinking about science since we know for a fact that science has been able to answer these philosophical questions in the ensuing five hundred years. In this case philosophy stepped in where the era’s best science ended, and then science again stepped in when it had the capacity to answer these philosophical questions.

As another example, consider the deep philosophical questions about quantum mechanics pondered by the founders of quantum mechanics, profound thinkers like Bohr, Einstein and Heisenberg. These men were brilliant scientists but they were also bona fide philosophers; Heisenberg even wrote a readable book called “Physics and Philosophy“. But the reason why they were philosophers almost by default is because they understood that quantum mechanics was forcing a rethinking about the nature of reality itself that challenged our notions not just about concrete entities like electrons and photons but also about more ethereal ones like consciousness, objectivity and perception. Bohr and Heisenberg realized that they simply could not talk about these far flung implications of physics without speaking philosophically. In fact some of the most philosophical issues that they debated, such as quantum entanglement, were later validated through hard scientific experiments; thus, if nothing else, their philosophical arguments helped keep these important issues alive. Even among the postwar breed of physicists (many of whom were of the philosophy-averse, “shut up and calculate” type) there were prominent philosophers like John Wheeler and David Bohm, and they again realized the value of philosophy not as a tool for calculation or measurement but simply as a guide to thinking about hazy issues at the frontiers of science. In some sense it’s a good sign then when you start talking philosophically about a scientific issue; it means you are really at the cutting edge.

The fact of the matter – and a paradox of sorts – is that science grows fastest at its fringes, but it’s also at the fringes that it is most uncertain and unable to reach concrete conclusions. That is where philosophy steps in. You can think of philosophy as a kind of stand-in that’s exploring the farthest reaches of scientific thinking while science is maturing and retooling itself to understand the nature of reality. Tyson, Hawking, Krauss, and in fact all of us, are philosophers in that respect, and we should all feel the wiser for it.

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