4 comments 25 February 2008

The second reading by H. Philipse was on Darwin and the evolution of morality from the perspective of The Descent of Man (1871). In this book Darwin wants to approach morality 'exclusively from the side of natural history'.

Philipse started his lecture with a reading on Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), which embeds The Descent of Man as the role of man and his morality in evolution. The theory of evolution synthesized a great deal of ideas and had implications far beyond the realm of natural history. Influences on Darwin were Paley (argument for adaptive complexity: Watchmaker analogy), Malthus (struggle for life), geology (fossils), breeding and tilling, and the voyage of the Beagle. This knowledge was incorporated into the foundations of evolution: 1) variation under domestication & in nature; 2) struggle for life; 3) natural selection; 4) heritability of traits; 5) descent with modification.

How did Darwin explain human morality from this? He was one of the first to give morality a "lower" origin. Unlike the three moral systems discussed last week, where rationality or God were the origin of morality, Darwin concludes that human nature and morality are bound to its evolution. Animals, developing their intellectual powers, could get moral sense or conscience as well. He defines four elements of morality: a) social instincts (sympathy, love, trust, sensibility to affirmation and rejection); b) highly developed mental faculties, such as "inward monitor"; c) language (the wishes of the community can be expressed); d) habit.

Darwin rejects the ethics of Kant and Mill because 'man seems often to act impulsively, that is from instinct or long habit, without any consciousness of pleasure.' Behaviour seems to preceed thought. With his evolutionary ethics he constructed a explanation of morality, undermining its eternally and necessary validity. Darwin included a normative check in his evolutionary ethics. His theory of evolution were to have great impact on later thinkers and their systems of morality. Coming tuesday: Spencer and Nietzsche. Van 20.00 tot 21.30 uur in de Aula van het Academiegebouw, Domplein 29, Utrecht.

0 comments 24 February 2008

Summary by Dirk and Ruben of Theodore M. Porter's "The Death of the Object: Fin de siècle Philosophy of Physics," in D. Ross (ed.), Modernist Impulses in the Human Sciences, 1994.

Porter attempts to describe how science obtained the adjectives that it has today, namely impersonal, univocal, and authoritative. With the conception of "the death of the object," Porter wants to illustrate that descriptionism (see Heilbron) was not a defensive turn from realism in a period of crisis in physics, but an optimistic and positivist attempt to define science to encompass both physical and mental phenomena, while introducing an universal scientific method. It made knowledge a matter of convention and boundaries seem artificial, not to exalt subjectivity, but to increase certainty. He illustrates this by Ernst Mach and Carl Pearson, while putting them in the historical context of late nineteenth century physics.

In the late nineteenth century realism was questioned. Time, space, force etc. were concepts which gradually descended from their absolute realist position to a position of conventionalism. Description started replacing causal explanation. By giving up metaphysics and relying instead on mathematical description, physical theory was to become like pure mathematics.

Ernst Mach (1838-1916) argued that scientific knowledge was economical and consisted of the connection of appearances. Its ultimate product was not the knowledge itself, but control. No distinction could be made between subject and object, therefore scientific claims could be about physical objects as well as human actors. The common basis of all knowledge lay in the immediacy of experience. According to Mach, human intimacy with nature permitted successful science. Max Planck, however, found it imperative that the outside world was something independent from man, something absolute. Mach's denial of real objects in physics was held up as the foundation for objective knowledge in the human sciences.

Carl Pearson (1857-1936) was a Neo-Machian, according to Porter. He also insisted on a unified science encompassing more than the physical world, yet went further in his development of a scientific method and its uses. For Carl Pearson, science knew no limits and he defied the traditional boundaries of politics, religion, and even the human skin. His scientific method consisted of the classification of facts, the comparison of their relationships, and finally the discovery of a formula or scientific law. The scientific method could help solve social problems. Because everybody could learn this method it required no more than good education to obtain good citizens. Individuality was sacrificed for the public good.

Porter shows how science expanded beyond all limits by associating itself with appearances. The death of the object resulted in the disintegration of the subject, resulting in the possibility of universal experience, consensus and an quantification and objectification of knowledge. Late nineteenth century philosophy of physics was not in a crisis, but resonated in a wider culture yielding an increase of certainty. Mach’s adoption of the principle of economy and the influence of Pearson on the Social Sciences through statistics illustrates the cross-fertilization between the different disciplines.

Remarks and criticism

According to Porter, descriptionism was an optimistic attempt. The ‘revolt against positivism’ is almost neglected in the paper, while the role of the positivists is exemplified. Naturally, a crisis in physics is absent in scientists with a optimistic, exuberant view of physics. His sources and perspective defined the outcome of his question. A stronger case would have been to include more examples of confident scientists in the late nineteenth century, who were oblivious to a crisis. Porter, furthermore, does not illustrate an ‘efflorescence of competing conceptions of the proper foundations of physics’. Also, the example of Boltzmann can hardly be seen as unproblematic for physics. Michelson’s ‘remarkable complacency’ in precise measurement is not convincing either. Nineteenth century thought moved away from ontological realism to relational conventionalism, why change if there was no crisis? Furthermore, offence may be the best defense.

How do Fechner’s and Mach’s psychophysics and monism as holistic principles relate to scientific knowledge understood as to economize on thought, the disregarding nature except insofar as humans interact with it, and Mach’s razor? Is Pearson’s rigid scientific method not a narrowing down and reduction of our knowledge?

How to practice psychophysics, Mach does not give us a scientific method, nor a political use of his theory. Does that make his monism unconvincing, yet politically and ethically, regarding Pearson, admirable?

Pearson does not make a classification of the material of science. He does not apply his own method to the field of science. Is this an insuperable objection to his view on science?  

Why is measuring essential to descriptionism, and does it really remove sources of controversy?

0 comments 18 February 2008


Utrecht University has nominated HCSSH student Azadeh Achbari for the ECHO Award 2008. This annual award by ECHO (Center for diversity policy) is given to a non-Western student who distinguishes him/herself by excessive academic accomplishments, groundbreaking abilities, and an active social involvement.

Azadeh Achbari not only is a good student: next to her studies she does charity work for Amnesty International, she is politically involved the GroenLinks party in Bloemendaal en Haarlem, and she supervises students in their Dutch language acquisition. Her nomination for the ECHO Awarch 2008 is supported by Professor Wijnand Mijnhardt, president of the Descartes Centre, an institute for the history and philosophy for the sciences and the humanities. The winner will be revealed on Wednesday 2 April.

2 comments 14 February 2008

Last thursday I attented a lecture in a series of lectures on ethics and evolution. Since I thought it was a wonderful experience, entertaining as well as informing, I wanted to share it.

The central theme of the series of lectures is the relation between ethics and evolution. The series are multi-disciplinary with dimensions ranging from philosophical, cultural historical, political, biological, game theoretical to anthropological. A seemingly impossible task, but if one can do it, it will be Herman Philipse, philosopher and jurist.

The first lecture sketched the crisis in the foundations of moral in the nineteenth century. Philipse addresses the three main systems of morality, of which there are still adherents today. Those are godcommandtheory [godsgebodtheorie], Kant's categorical imperative, and Mill's Utilitarianism. Philipse discussed the pro's and con's of every theory.

The first theory insists on doing what God commands, which is naturally good. It is a simple, explanatory theory. Problematic, however, is how we should know what God wants. There are a multitude of religions, from which to choose? How thrustworthy are revelations? The immorality of theonomy [God's law] in certain bible passages was recounted [Elijah on the mountain Karmel 1 Kings 18:20-46]. The most interesting critique of theonomy was the Euthyphro dilemma [Plato]. Is (x) something good because God wants it, or (y) does God want what is good? The first (x) makes God arbitrary, the second (y) makes God superfluous. Added to this is that God has revealed nothing that humanity did not know already. The ten commandments for example are basically universal. Maybe we should find out for ourselves what is good and moral.

Kant thought we should impose on ourselves moral laws/maximes. His autonomical ethical system is based on the categorical imperative. It states that 1) we should act according with that maxime, which we can want at the same time to be a general or universal law, and 2) we should not use people only as a means to and end, but at the same time as an end in themselves. In the case of a liar, he can not want everybody to lie, because lying is a parasitical act on people's believe in thrustworthiness. This makes it impossible to want lying to be universal. Problems with Kants ethics are cases that apply to the two rules, but we would not consider moral and the possibility of a conflict of norms. In the first case, the misantropic (self)killer wants to kill all of humanity. If the whole of humanity wants that too, his goal can be accomplished. In the second case, can we lie to save a mans life? According to J.S. Mill: "Kant... fails grotesquely".

Mill tried to find the criterion of right and wrong and the foundation of morality. He found it in Utilitarianism which applied the greatest-happiness principle/ the principle of utility. "Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness". What's more, the happiness of "the whole sentient creation". Not only humans are thus taken into account, which makes a first problem. Should we want to improve the happiness of bugs and flies, as they provide the greatest amount of biomass? And how to justify the greatest-happiness principle? Mill argues "questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof. The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it... In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it." Philipse strikingly noted the double fallacy of this argument. 'Visible' and 'desirable' are not the same words. The first implies a 'can', the second an 'ought'. Second, people wish the happiness of their loved ones, not "the whole sentient creation". The problems become worse when seeing the implications of utilitarianism. Can we kill one man to save hundred animals? In which term should happiness be calculated? Should we save hundreds of people in Africa from hunger now, which will make the problems of overpopulation worse later, or should we not? What to do?

The conclusion is that no (the three) attempt to found ethics works. They all have their merits, but also serious downsides. Next lecture will be on the historical Darwin and his ethical system for humanity [the Descent of Man 1871]. Herman Philipse combined linguistic eloquence, rethorical elegance, academic skill, good humour, erudite knowledge, sharp analysis, and profundity into a masterpiece of a lecture. Next time I'll be attending again.

1 comments 06 February 2008

Peter Koolmees, curator and historian of veterinary medicine, was published in the latest edition of Gewina (Vol. 30, 2007, pp.162-174) with his article "Over Koetjes en Kalfjes? De Collectie Diergeneeskunde van het Universiteitsmuseum Utrecht" (lit. "On Cows and Calves? The Veterinary Collection of the University Museum Utrecht"). In this piece, he discusses the development of the veterinary collection and its importance in today's society.

The most important sentence is found on page 85 (167), when he talks about the course 'history of veterinary medicine' in the curriculum of veterinary students: "Onderdeel van het programma is een rondleiding in de Collectie Diergeneeskunde en een demonstratie van oud veterinair instrumentarium. Dit laatste vindt ook plaats in het kader van master 'Historical and Comparative studies of the sciences and Humanities' van het Descartes centrum van de [U]niversiteit Utrecht."

Our new masters programme has officially been published by name!

3 comments 05 February 2008

Today was the first encounter with bureaucratic troubles concerning my application to go on exchange. First, I got this hostile lady on the phone declaring that I sent my application to the wrong office. I sent it to International Office Humanities Faculty instead of International Office Utrecht University. Second, she stated that the deadline was 15 January, so that I was late anyways.

:S :(

But no worries. Away with all the negativity, look at the bright side: now you guys don't have to make the same mistake! :)

According to the website, the deadline was indeed on January 15. But that was also the day we had our Going Abroad Meeting with Mijnhardt and Blankesteijn. For some reason it would be fine to hand in the application late. And, make sure you send your application to the following address:

Utrecht Universiteit
Studentenservice/International Office
Postbus 80125
3508 TC Utrecht