I love ‘Franken-food’!

There is a proposal to enforce “accurate labels on food products so that consumers can choose between GMO & non/GMO products”. While this is being presented as an issue in informing consumers, ethically, it’s no different from supporting accurate labels so that employers can know the religion and ethnicity of prospective employees. Don’t people have the right to know? What do you have to hide? Only if there is some basis to these fears. Fortunately, there is not enough evidence to support either of these laws.

If minorities are actually dangerous, then label them; otherwise it’s wrong. It all depends on how you define ‘actually’. Is evolution actually true? Is there actually global warming?  Is Vitamin C actually necessary? How do you answer these questions? I prefer to use science, but some people seem to think that science is just a big conspiracy. They think that big corporate money subverts research.

If that were the case, how is it that anthopogenic global warming is backed by ~99.9% of scientists? Since the oil business is sooooo much bigger than Monsanto, then there would be more money to subvert research in this area than any other. Since this is not the case, we can be certain that Monsanto ( which is smaller than Starbuck’s! ) will not be able to use their much smaller resources to subvert research.

GMO labelling is wrong. There’s no science behind it. We have many many many times more domesticated animals on this planet than we do people. And we have detailed records of what they eat. This means that we have all the data you could possibly want about GMO’s effects on the health of large mammals and poultry. This is how we test new medicines, and medicines are far more dangerous than foods. It’s not typical to test food like this at all, but since it’s a new breeding technique, it’s best to err on the side of safety and rigorously test GMOs. Because of this, GMOs are far better tested than any other food products ever, because the testers know that people are prejudiced against them. But the time for testing many GM products is over because the evidence is in. You no longer have any right to ruin the future of the human race, so go back to your cave and live there.


GMOs are better for the environment, have a lower carbon footprint, and use less water, fuel, pesticides, and fertilizer. I’m actually not aware of any disadvantagees to them, other than the taboos of ignorant people who are not very concerned with producing food for the hungry.

GMOs can be designed for use in marginally useful soils. This is especially important with widespread desertification and climate change. This alone makes GMO essential for the future of the human race, especially the starving people in the Third World.

The GMO opposition is all a bunch of part-time Googlers who think they know more than real scientists. That’s it. Rich ignorant people are are blocking the only technology which can cure world hunger. It’s actually worse that supporting ISIS, in terms of the amount of suffering that this pseudoscience does and will continue to cause.

I saw an interview with David Suzuki explaining his opposition to GMOs. I was disappointed because there were no facts at all, just vague “Everything tells us that GMO cannot work!” We have goats that produce spider silk and rats that can provide human replacement tissue and he say that it “can’t work”? Why does he not say something to clarify what he means by this? Anything. Like a fact or two.

My wife unfriended me on FB because of my advocacy, and I was anti-GMO for 10 years before I actually researched it. Thank goodness I studied botany and general science as well during that time.

So I’m not exaggerating when I say that GMO labelling is evil. It’s about as evil as labeling people, just in a slightly different way.

‘Franken-food’, BTW,  is an allusion to ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ a creature that was artificially created, but which had everything that a human has. Because of his superficial differences from others, he was hounded from society for the rest of his life by the hatred of the ignorant many. For that reason, I embrace the derogatory term ‘Franken-food’; those who use it in its original sense merely mark themselves are members of the lowest layer of society, placing themselves and their prejudices  in the path of progress and learning.

My modest proposal:  someone should start a local GMO craft beer called “Franken-beer” to raise consciousness about this issue. Ottawa has enough evidence-based thinkers to make this work.


On Platonism, both Metaphysical and Ethical

The following selection paraphrased from the article on ‘Morality and Evolutionary Biology’ from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an objection to metaphysical naturalism, but it is also relevant to ethics as well.

The Challenge from Irreducible Pluralism

“Lets take mathematics and evolution as an example. If we say mathematical proposition x (e.g. ‘There is always a prime number between the integer n and 2n.’ ), we can determine the truth of this proposition by use of mathematical reasoning. We do not say x is true because there is an evolutionary advantage to x being true. A moral realist would argue that moral philosophy is similar to mathematics ( or physics, chemistry, etc). For example the statement that interracial marriages is wrong one can use moral reason to say this statement is false in light of the moral truth that all human beings have the same moral worth. In the same way we can use autonomous mathematical reason to evaluate mathematics we can use autonomous moral reason to evaluate ethics. Of course moral reasoning can be influenced by culture and biological factors and there are other (would argue less) plausible moral approaches like expressivism or error theory than moral realism, but the statement all ethics is simply evolutionary biology seems very premature.”

This selection is  probably the most interesting interpretation/rebuttal of ‘reductionism’, a concept commonly used but rarely well-defined. It claims that the formal sciences are in some way ‘autonomous’; they give themselves their own principles. Frege famously defended this in his conflict with Husserl’s early psychologism. According to this modern variety of “Platonism”, the principles of a formal science cannot be derived from any empirical field. If this is true of mathematics and logic, then is seems as though this sets a precedent for the “is/ought” distinction.If a priori knowldege were shown to have a separate basis from a posteriori knowledge, then it could be used to clarify the separation of fact and value. It would seem that Platonism in this sense give us at least two realms of beings who are independent and yet have a certain level of ‘pre-established harmony’ between them. Math for example, is useful and authoritative for many empirical fields from physics to economics. How this could be so was what Kant sought to explain, and his solution sought to bring both formal and ethical beings into relation with the empirical.

My basic idea for naturalistic metaphysics is this: mathematics performs a cognitive function and therefore has adaptive value in light of this function. In order to perform this function, it needs to satisfy certain formal conditions. We are constrained by the definitions of mathematical beings because changing those definitions in the least destroys the functional and adaptive value of math.

Arithmetic is founded on nothing but the set of sets whose members map onto each other. “Mapping” means that each member of one set has a unique counterpart in every other set with the same number of members. This is the only way to clearly and primitively define integers, and all other math is founded on this simple set of interrelated definitions. If you change the defintion of one interger, it becomes the same as its neighbor and leaves a gap. Thus there is only one possible set of integers, and therfore only one possible way to relate them, meaning there is only one possible multiplication table.

If you changed the definition of one of the integers, it would also lose it’s adaptive value. Mathematics is only “autonomous” because each mathematical being has NO autonomy from most if not all mathematical beings, and all are dependent on the simple idea of the relationship of sets mapping onto each other. This idea is in turn is derived from problems like figuring out:

  • how to share a big basket of fruit
  • if a war party is evenly matched by the enemy
  • if someone has stolen some of our cattle

If basic arithmetic can’t accomplish this, it’s useless crap. I’m sure I oversimplified and left out some other items ( such as the fact that there are multiple mathematical foundational theories ), but I hope this clarifies my overly-short answer of how evolution can produce creatures with a priori knowledge of the ‘universal language’ of mathematics. In this view, some ethical principles can have something like this sort of a priori validity if we can find a suitable starting point. For math, the starting point I used was defining the integers through set theory. The starting point for ethics could start with the game theory of the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this dilemma, there are only a finite number of Evolutionary Stable Strategy-schemas, i.e., definable sets of strategies that work. Examples of a strategy-schemas include “Initially Benevolent Strategies” ( strategies that do not betray without being betrayed first) and ” 2-turn Forgiving Strategies” ( strategies that stop betraying in revenge after two turns without a betrayal ). Perhaps there’s a better starting point than the Prisoner’s Dilemma. But this is just to illustrate possibility of how to get started generating ethical rules from evolutionary game theory. This could fulfill the dream of Plato, Kant and other ethical rationalists while paying proper respect to modern science.



Brains in Vats and the Simulation Argument

NOTE: One of the members of my Facebook group had some questions about Daniel Dennett’s dismissal of the possibility of “Descartes’ demon”, who could create virutal reality like the “Matrix” and fool the “Cogito” about the external world. We had a great discussion about it, which I have edited and posted below. While a lot of my blog posts are adapted from Facebook discussions, this one seems rather hard to change into a monologue. As a result, I am going to experiment with posting in this cleaned-up dialogue version.  Thanks to all my great interlocutors. Enjoy!

Q: There seem to be some problems with the following line of reasoning from Dennett: “Might you be nothing but a brain in a vat? Might you have always been just a brain in a vat?”

Dennett’s answer (in brief): “Descartes was wise to endow his demon with *infinite* powers of trickery. Although the task is not, strictly speaking, infinite, the amount of information obtainable in short order by an inquisitive human being is staggeringly large…Throw a skeptic a dubious coin, and in a second or two of hefting, scratching, ringing, tasting, and just plain looking at how the sun glints on its surface, the skeptic will consume more bits of information than a Cray computer can organize in a year. Making a real but counterfeit coin is child’s play; making a simulated coin out of nothing but organized nerve simulations is beyond human technology now and probably forever. One conclusion we can draw from this is that we are not brains in vats — in case you were worried.” ( Consciousness Explained, page 7)

(Facepalm..) Just seems like a non-sequitur. x would be very difficult to achieve, therefore not x, but there’s even a deeper fallacy here. Our brains are creating a simulation of the universe all the time…? So, clearly that can be done. However, the implicit part of the argument sort-of makes sense, to rephrase it “The universe is, like, really complex. So, it’d be, like, really a lot of effort to fake it”. You still need a universe, and universes are kinda big. Of course, it also raises the question – if our universe is simulated, what practical difference does it make?

Adam Voight’s Reply: This is a very good question and really gets to the heart of what separates modern and premodern scepticism / science.

Let’s start with skepticism: ancient skepticism simply doubted everything and found correctly that if you do this, then that means everything “can” be doubted and that therefore there is no knowledge. This is true and yet “trivial” as mathematicians say. It’s not “interesting” and  you can’t really do anything with it. Fortunately, natural selection tends to eliminate those who act in accordance with this trivial truth. Others ignore it in practice but pay lip service to it, and they are difficult to answer when they bring it up.

Modern skepticism takes many many forms, but all of them accept some form of modern science, meaning that while any one particular fact can be doubted, you cannot doubt everything at once. Every scientific theory accepts some set of truths as premises, but what they all accept are Aristotle’s Three Laws of Thought and all of their corrolaries, e.g. arithmetic, geometry, et cetera.

While it is logically permissible to doubt the reality of the external world, the truths of physics are true even if the external world is an illusion. For example, even if the Earth and Moon are “not real”, physics and engineering will still let you know how to get to the Moon and back. Even if the Moon is an illusion, you can still die from having your rocket miss it and go hurling through deep space. In either case, physics is just a well founded as it needs to be. There is no better-founded form of knowledge about the Earth and Moon available. It is useless to criticize it like some ancient skeptic or neo-Platonist. Useless, but not logically inconsistent. It is conceivable that someday someone can restate skepticism in an interesting form.

Now here is where we get to Dennett. Dennett is assuming that humans are living things, and that living things are physical objects and that physical objects “are” in the way that Aristotle or Descartes might define: subject to change, extended in space and time, et cetera. It’s logically possible to doubt the existence of the external world and all of these other premises, even though this would require redefining “existence”. Certainly a philosopher should at the very least entertain these thoughts, and if any theory could deal with them in a better way than Aristotle did, it would be one point in its favor.

However, physics can be true about physical objects regardless of the ultimate nature of these objects in the same way that evolutionary theory is true not only of “real” life but also virtual life existing in computer simulations. Even if it were found that we live in a simulation, physics and biology would still be just as true. Why? For the following two reasons:

1) Physics is not only the study of physical objects, it’s also the study of models of physical objects. Now if the our entire universe were shown to be model, then it would still fall within the purview of physics.

2) It is in fact possible that our universe is a simulation. However, the only way to prove that this is true or false is through the study of physics as it is currently done. Philosophy and physics can cooperate to define this question, and ask what sorts of answers are possible or satisfactory. Simulation theory is a possible physical theory, so long as it has practical effects. If it has no practical effects, then it’s meaningless. If it does have practical effects, then physics can study it.

Just because physics assumes the reality of the external world does not mean it is false if the world is a simulation. Newton’s theory of space and time were wrong, but his theory was good physics, because it consisted of well-defined concepts that were derived from experience. That’s why it led somewhere, and by “somewhere” I mean the NEXT theory.

Question: “My issue isn’t with Dennett’s “quasi-skepticism” (for lack of a better term) — it’s with his tautology. I do see your point, that if we want to get anywhere, we need to take *some* things for granted. Call them the Rules Of The Game. But to take data obtained using this method, and hereby try to prove that your founding assumptions are valid, is a tautology. All Dennett has really shown is the following: ‘If all possible worlds have the same physics, chemistry, biology and information science that ours does, then we are (probably) not brains in vats.’ (Actually, he hasn’t even demonstrated THIS very well IMHO — after all, he’s assuming that his imaginary mad scientists would be at our level of technological development, which seems odd given that, among other things, computing power doubles every decade — or is it faster now? But to continue…)
This is a perfectly valid conclusion, as far as it goes. But to extrapolate from this conclusion to the wider conclusion (that we are not brains in vats, full stop) is unwarranted and, moreover, misleading. After all, if we ARE brains in vats, then surely the validity of our scientific information is one of the first things we should be doubting! (I disagree with your conclusion that physics is physics; it’s trivially easy to invent a possible physics that differs wildly from ours — e.g. where an object initially at rest will gradually accelerate, or where both poles of magnets attract, or where “light speed” does not exist as an upper limit to velocity…) Essentially he’s using a clever sleight of hand to conceal a tautology from the unsuspecting reader, and all within the first seven pages, so as (I think) to dazzle them with his supposed brilliance before they have a chance to get their mental guards up. This is insidious, and unworthy of his training as a philosopher. An honest philosopher would explicitly spell out what he was doing (“For the purposes of argument, we will assume X”) and discuss the limitations of his conclusion. Dennett goes out of his way to hide them, like a magician pulling a carrot out of somebody’s ear. Unlike the magic trick, though, people read Dennett’s books (presumably) to seek truth and knowledge, not entertainment, and it’s dishonest to pull the wool over his audience’s eyes in this way.”

Adam Voight: “If it were me writing the same book, I would do it differently. He doesn’t really need to show that we’re not in a cosmic simulation, only that literal ‘brains in vats’ would not be lucid like we are now (they would not be able to read or write or think logically, for example), but I think that this section is very important to include because it looks at consciousness as a physical system, and you can’t do a science of consciousness without considering how mind is supervenient on life and life is supervenient on physics.

(Note to neophytes: “Supervenient” means based on but not reducible to the lower level. “Reducible to” means being an emergent phenomenon originating completely from a lower substrate while exhibiting characteristics that are physically impossible to deduce from the substrate.)

However, once you show that it’s physically impossible to create a single brain in a vat, this possibility becomes a LOT less interesting. It’s actually more likely that our entire universe is a simulation than that any single person’s qualia within a universe is. A true brain in a vat would not have access to the same consciousness that we do; it would be like a dream. Now they might not realize it that they were dreaming, but it is possible to know for sure that you are not dreaming if you’re awake, and he shows how this is true.

In conclusion, Dennett’s argument is not as circular as it might seem. With all of its assumptions openly stated, it goes like this: “Given our current knowledge of physics, it is impossible to implement ‘Descartes’ Demon’ within a Universe. So as far as we know, the way around this is for a civilization to implement an entire universe as a simulation. Since this is a radically different situation from a simulation at the individual level, Descartes’ thought-experiment becomes much less interesting and compelling.”



What is Evolutionary Ethics?

What I’m engaging in is called “metaethics” or “ethical theory”, the study of “what is ethics?”. Are ethical judgments cognitive, emotional, religious or other? Can they be true and false? Or are they by definition neither true nor false? To answer certain questions like this, we need to decide what sort of thing ethics is. One sort of thing that ethics could be is some natural phenomenon rather than some transcendent Platonic or mystical reality from another level of reality. If you believe this, then you are a “moral naturalist”.

Here I am presenting a type of moral naturalism based on an acceptance that human behavior evolved. I know that this seems pretty obvious in certain sense, but lots of people do not like to apply this truth to ethics.  When some non-naturalists say that many ethical concepts “do not make sense in light of evolution” ultimately means this: people did not evolve to be scientists, they evolved to be religious. That’s all that really means, because ethics makes very good evolutionary sense. If humans stopped being ethical, they would go extinct. This is simply true and accepted by science, and since this is the case, morality os one of our most adaptive traits. Seekers of knowledge who cannot accept this fact must propose a counter theory for ethics or accept evolutionary naturalism.

The closest thing we now have to a counter-theory is theistic natural law. The ethical “theories” that are spoken of in secular ethical theory ( e.g. virtue, utilitarianism, deontology, etc. ) are not really “theories” in the way that I am using it here because even if we humans were to agree that Kantian ethics were correct, we would still be left with the problem of figuring out how humans evolved to have such a morality. Theistic natural law, would go further than most ethical theories by explaining the purpose of life in terms of God’s Will. This bridges the alleged gap between “is” and “ought”. Without such an account, the numerous problems in what is normally called “ethical theory” would require a higher-level basis from which to resolve these difficulties. For example, all the paradoxical actions that seem to be derivable from Kant or Utilitarianism would be explained away by reference to the ultimate basis for theses moral theories, which would also bridge the fact/value gap. But modern ethical theory cannot bridge this gap. Why? There is no other real or scientific basis for any sense of “ought” than the following:

  1. For an artificially created system, there are normative statements like – “A vehicle ought to travel.”, “Humans (as God’s creation ) ought to serve God.”, “A tool handle ought not to break.”, “Citrus fruits ought to be harvested in the winter.”, “Mulberries ought to be sweet and juicy.”
  2. A naturally-evolved system, there are normative statements like- “Caterpillars ought to become butterflies.”, “Leaves ought to be exposed to sunlight.”, “Parents ought to care for their children.”
  3. For any combination of the above, there are normative statements like.- “In this weather, we ought to construct shelter.”, “We ought to prevent human extinction.”, “The government ought to promote the general welfare.”

Ethical judgments are all a form of selection, and this fact alone is how selection theory bridges the is/ought gap. Evolution runs on a few types of selection: natural, sexual and artificial selection are all well known, but “ethical selection” should also be added to the list. Just as we choose sexual mates with whom to cooperate in our reproduction, thus engaging in sexual selection, all other forms of cooperation require ethical selection to determine who we share resources with. One form of ethical selection consists of making ethical judgments about others or debating their character. Both sexual and ethical selection are oreciprocal or “peer-to-peer” selection.

When we explain ethical selection, we need to keep separate two levels of discourse:

1) Folk Morality – The discourse of our day-to-day ethical judgments themselves, the ways that agents discuss and engage verbally in their own forms of cooperation, by praising, blaming, exhorting, etc. Wen we judge people in our daily lives, we are not bound by the scientific worldview.

2) Ethical Theory – The study of the ways that agents (humans, animals, computers) have to cooperate, by theorizing, testing, researching, et cetera. Our scientific discourse about ethics proper, which is bound by scientific worldview.

Any reference to ethics needs to keep from getting these two levels confused, because the scientific worldview is most certainly not going to sit well with ethical common sense, nor need its approval. Expecting scientific ethical theory to be ethically uplifting is like expecting a biological theory of sex to be pornographic; the two levels are essentially separate. Ethical anti-naturalists base their entire position on this confusion.

All confusion in ethics can be avoided if you clearly distinguish which of these you are doing. Of course, all claims made in the second category of speech have their ultimate basis in the statements of the first category. Many speech-acts in the second category have no basis at all and may even have no truth value at all since they are merely exhortations for one’s political unit to cooperate, schism, attack, etc. But there is no reason that a group may come to exist in some future time for whom all political speech-acts are reducible to some set of scientific statements.

For example if I say that “murder is wrong, x murdered y, therefore x is wrong”. This is a true statement and is completely within category 2, but if we ask WHY murder is wrong at all, we must leave category 2 and go to category 1. At this point we shall have to explain modes of cooperation the same way we explain hair color, body shape, immune systems, et cetera, either by saying “God made it that way.” or “That’s the best Evolutionary Stable Strategy. (ESS)” or whatever.  And it’s actually true that murder is not a good ESS; animals rarely every kill their own kind, and this can be explained using Evolutionary Game Theory. Most people who have not studied evolution have this idea that evolutions favors the wicked, but wickedness destroys itself in short order if it takes a dominant role in any context. It can only “dominate” on the fringes of a stable ecology or economy, and “goodness” is that which makes for the best long-term evolutionary outcome. Evolution actually favors the good over the long term, so never lose hope!


How did ethics evolve? Just like any other social behavior. There are three parts to it:

  • Behavior
  • Feelings
  • Thoughts/speech

Everything we call “ethics” is included in each of these, and evolution has no trouble whatsoever explaining them. It is only people who refuse to see that ethics must be evolved who get snared in paradoxes when they try to come up with some reason why morality cannot be evolved.

If it is not an adaptation, what is it? Some feeling you have? Something given to / imposed on you by your fairy godmother? I can’t think of any other possible explanation. If you have some meaningful explanation that might just possibly be proven sometime someday by some person, I would like to know it.

Ethics can be explained by God or by Evolution. (Assuming that there is a God…) Both of these have the common advantage that they have a clear basis for ethics in an explanation of why people exist. For God, the punishment is the Afterlife. For Evolution, the punishment is going extinct. Yes, social creatures will go extinct unless they observe social rules of cooperation. It’s a fact. Both of these punishments have a common problem: the are both ignored by bad people, and are thus not as effective as we would like.

If someone decides to break the rules that make our society function, they are bringing themselves and everyone around them closer to extinction. So over time we would expect that the people who do not go extinct would get better at preventing unethical behavior. Which is exactly what has happened since primates have evolved. Everyone knows this, but people really dislike bringing real science into ethics so they try to ignore the role of evolution.

Slavery is a great example of this. Why is it wrong? Because it does not work, and by ‘work’ I mean it cannot outcompete freedom. ( I am here using ‘freedom’ to refer to any non-slavery system. ) If it could outcompete freedom, then slavery would be a lot more common today. On the contrary, it is actually a wasteful and inefficient way to get things done. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and the USSR all used tons of slave labor in their war effort, and they lost to all the countries who used very few if any slaves. Look at all the countries that use slaves today; are they well off? No. Nobody wants to move there and buy slaves. Ultimately, slavery is wrong for evolutionary reasons, and successful groups of humans tend to dislike having slaves. There is a lot more to be said on this subject, but the key thing is that anybody can just ignore the Moral Law no matter what they believe about its source. Theists are famous for  ignoring the possibility of Hell. And we all see lots of people who are going extinct due to their lack of fitness. Both groups are in the same boat in terms of their lack of virtue.

Theistic Ethics has the weakness in that it lacks any factual basis. Evolutionary Ethics has the weakness that it’s hard to explain to kids and the uneducated. Of course evolution has the advantage that it is true no matter what you believe; religion is better in that it is easier to believe and thus makes a suitable ethical ‘operating system’ for most societies.

Against Chalmers on Identity and Supervenience


This post airs my thoughts concerning the relation of supervenience and the history of science, with bad results for certain criticisms of naturalist metaphysics. It will make sense to you if follow topics like supervenience, metaphysical zombies, twin earths and qualia.  It is also very relevant to debates concerning moral naturalism, the naturalistic fallacy, and G.E. Moore’s ‘Open Question’ argument.  I will make this connection in a future post, although my “God vs. the Fact/Value Distinction” already deals with this in preliminary way. This line of thought is necessary to defend “The Theory of Ethical Selection”, against the most powerful criticisms of moral naturalism.

Supervenience and reductionism.

Chalmers, myself,  and most other scientifically-minded people would admit that if you have a certain physical arrangement of atoms in possible world ‘W’, then all of that world’s positive biological facts follow necessarily from that arrangement. While life is not in some ways reducible to an arrangement of matter, but you can’t differ biologically without differing physically. This may not be identical with many ideas concerning materialist ‘reductionism’, but that’s what most biological naturalists believe, and I don’t really need anything stronger to justify my version of naturalism. Philosophers such as Chalmers sum this idea up thusly: “biological facts are ‘logically supervenient’ on physical facts”. This means that all possible worlds that are physically identical will also be biologically identical. Chalmers agrees with this and in my view is therefore a biological naturalist. However, he writes an entire book attacking the thesis of naturalism with respect to one aspect of mind: phenomenal consciousness (a.k.a. ‘qualia’). On his view consciousness is not logically supervenient on biology in the same way that biology is on physics. On this view, metaphysical zombies are possible, since there is no clear sense in which qualia are necessarily physical.

The opposing thesis of “qualia naturalism” holds that any world W where all physical and biological facts are the same, all ‘qualia-facts’ will also be the same. In other words, metaphysical zombies are impossible. Chalmers defends qualia non-naturalism, meaning that biological facts do not determine the qualia-facts and two worlds could be physically identical while differing in having qualia.

Most people would have their doubts as to whether consciousness is logically supervenient on biological and physical facts.  I’m a naturalist in both biology and mind, but I’m far more certain of the former than the latter. Why is this that case? What is the basis for these intuitions? In my view,it hinges on debates concerning the metaphysics of identity relations and how scientific theory relates to supervenience (both logical and natural).

Examples from the History of Science

To illustrate my reasoning on this, begin with a simpler case: it’s quite unremarkable to claim that lightning is supervenient on physical facts. Everyone knows that in modern terms “lightning is just a form of static electricity”. Most people today would agree with me, but long ago people tended to disagree, and with some good reason.  Long ago, reductionistic theories of lightning were not even advanced to the level of testable hypothesis. Epicurus says nothing of static electricity,even though he was clearly a lightning naturalist. I think the ancients were aware of static cling resulting from rubbing pieces of amber, but no one had any clue that it might have anything at all to do with lightning. In fact, lightning was almost universally considered to be a supernatural phenomenon and the majority of the human race is inclined to agree even today. Bach then few ‘lightning naturalists’ had no real proof, only mere speculation about atomic “seeds of fire”  awaiting some catalyst to release them.

Similarly, prior to the invention of the microscope, reductionistic or atomistic theories of biology were also relatively unwarranted. If Chalmers and other biological naturalists had published their views back then, even scientists would laugh at his wild speculation that “biological facts are supervenient on physical  [meaning “atomic”] facts”. At this time some smart people were speculating that this was the case, but it was still merely speculation and the dominant ‘theory’ of life was vitalistic. And I think it is safe to say that vitalism is the thesis of biological non-naturalism. On this view, you ca arrange matter however you like, but you will still be lacking life.

Even today, you can find many reasonable people who would doubt biological supervenience because it contradicts ‘common sense’. What makes Chalmers so sure that they’re wrong? Perhaps because we are privy to the results of evolutionary biology. This theory is so conclusive as to silence all doubt on the issue. A hundered years ago, we knew about evolution but even then biological naturalism in this philosophical sense was not yet proven.  On my view (and on this depends my whole argument), the current state of the relevant fields of science is the only basis of judgments of logical supervenience.
The only reason Chalmers accepts biological naturalism is because he accepts a certain empirical theory that supports supervenience between the physical and the biological. It’s not like vitalism has been disproven; it’s not really meaningful enough to function as a theory at all. So also are all forms of non-naturalism; you can never prove them wrong because they say nothing about anything at all. Naturalism says a lot; among other things is says that qualia are supervenient on the biological and thus also the physical. This means that for each different qualia, there will be a corresponding physical arrangement. I’m sure that many a non-naturalist will claim that this is also meaningless. I will not bother to argue against that, I will merely point out that this is far more meaningful that non-naturalism which makes no claims of any sort about the relations of qualia to anything at all. In this sense, it’s just like vitalism. Both claim that there is this magical juju which for some reason seems to have some correlation with living things, but in reality, there is no reason given for this in the theory, whereas for naturalism, the reason is very clear: the genus “living creatures” represent a distinct physical arrangement, and animals (which have qualia) are a species within this the genus.

When a similar theory is proposed and accepted in cognitive science, then perhaps even Chalmers should accept naturalism with respect to qualia. Another way of saying this is that even logical supervenience expresses an a posteriori identity. All of the relations of logical supervenience (such as between biology and physics) accepted by Chalmers  in his work are a posteriori in this same way. The result is that if our current understanding of the physical base expands in some fundamental way then at that point consciousness may become logically supervenient on that new base, and naturalism becomes true. The historical examples of lightning and vitalism were given to illustrate that whether or not logical supervenience holds is a posteriori. The identity relation between the two things is dependent on how well understood the field is, and this level of understanding is one of development of empirical science, not armchair philosophical hairsplitting a la Chalmers.

The Upshot

My point is three fold:

1) Any theory which will possibly explain anything at all assumes that logical supervenience holds between two levels.

2) However, logical supervenience establishes a priori identity only through the historical process of scientific advance which changes the meanings of concepts through empirical research.

3) Until the theory is thoroughly proven, it will be TOO reductive to everyone except its initial creators and defenders. Whichever theory is true, it must make some hypothesis that logical supervenience holds between two levels. We don’t know which theory is correct yet (if any), but whichever it is, it must satisfy this condition.

3) If it is thoroughly proven, then it remains just as ‘reductive’ as it ever was, but is never said to be so, it i merely said to “explain” things.

Of course I might be wrong, especially if there is some other sort of ultimate explanation than reductive analysis. I agree that there are other sorts of explanations for things besides reductive; for example, I can explain behavior teleologically or formally. Why does a person eat lots of cheeseburgers? Perhaps they like cheeseburgers. This is a nonreductive explanation using Aristotle’s “final cause”, but I would claim that there are more fundamental levels of explanation above this one, and the highest levels will have to resort to Aristotle’s material and efficient causes. This is not a necessary conceptual truth, and would not have been able to convince Aristotle in his day without access to modern science. However, if we were to bring him forward in time, we could justify it to him by appeal to his definition of the “arche” (or higher/-est principle) as we understand it today.

In Aristotelian terms ( given molecular biology, Mendelian genetics, and Darwinian evolution ) we are now able to show that “liking cheeseburgers” falls into the category of a possible arrangement of matter and energy.  This is in fact what it means to “explain” something. It still makes sense for a normal person to explain something with reference to final causes. It also works in fields where we take people’s preferences and initial data such as economics. But for an explanation from “FIRST principles”, we must explain it in terms of the most universal principles known.  This means that some entities must be reduced to other entities.

My explanation for phenomenal consciousness has a strong teleological component: I claim that phenomenal consciousness serves an  adaptive function.  Chalmers cannot imagine that it has a functional character, but that’s his problem, not mine. I can’t imagine how someone could go through the trouble to write such an nice book explaining the problem in such detail without getting a hint of the solution. I guess he must just be very attached to the idea that phenomenal consciousness is not adaptive. But then again many people get angry at the very idea that free will, love, religion, etc. are also adaptations or perhaps the by products of adaptation. Spoiler alert: all of this is merely implied by the truth of evolutionary theory. .

Notes on the Philosophy of Semantics

NOTE: These are my notes from an earlier presentation to Ottawa Cognitive Science Meetup.

Who cares about semantics?

  1. Linguistics needs another neutral language that makes clear logical and semantic connections or distinctions of Natural Language.


  1. Philosophy-  Frege, Russell, Moore, et al used logical notation as a “semantic microscope” to analyze the claims of science, ethics, etc.


  1. Psychology takes semantic theories as material for making  psycholinguistic hypotheses.


  1. Artificial Intelligence, contra the ”the Chinese Room”, needs to understand the meaning of natural language in order to process it.


Socrates- Discovered the very idea of semantics, that is=t could be interesting to worry about the meaning of such terms as “good”, “virtue”, “piety”, etc.


Plato- Proposed the theory of “Ideas” (eidoi, sing. eidos).


Aristotle- Created the study of formal logic.


Modern semantic theory began with German mathematician and philosopher Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), who founded the movement “analytic philosophy”, which defines philosophical research in much of the English-speaking world, Austria and Finland.

Frege began his research trying to axiomatize mathematics; i.e., derive math from logic. He failed, but his failure is one of the most instructive failures of all time, since cognitive and computer science are based on his efforts.


His first discovery is the distinction between sense and reference. “Reference” is the set of objects intended by a statement, and “sense” is how the reference is intended. For example, one can refer to the planet Venus in three ways, “Venus”, “the Morning Star”, or “The Evening Star”. In other words, all three of these terms has the same reference; they mean the same object. However, they have different senses in that they determine their object in three different ways.


  1. Venus = Venus
  2. Venus = Morning Star
  3. Venus = Evening Star
  4. Evening Star = Morning Star


He devised his system of logical notation as a “semantic microscope.” Rather than replacing natural language, logical notation lays bare language at the micro level. His notation is  horrible to decode, so others have revised it using his ideas as a starting point.



  1. éxù Û “the semantic value of x”
  2. {x} Û ”the set of x”
  3.  [“Churchhill smoked.”] Û [ áChurchillñ Î {smokers}]
  4. é”smoked”ùÛ{individuals who smoked}Û{Groucho Marx, Cmd. Che, Chucrchill, Sherlock Holmes, etc.}
  5. éABù is true for any sentence “AB” (if A is a NP and B is an intransitive VP) iff [ éAùÎ{B}].


Predicate logic.

Natural language suffers from quantifier ambiguity.

Ø negation

” universal -“for any____ ”

$ existential – “there is at least one___“

® implication- “if A then B”


“Beer is not available everywhere.”


Ø(“x) {xL®(ØxB)}



“Somebody voted for every candidate.”





Temporal logic.

“Chuchhill smoked.” Is true now, but it was not always true,, e.g., before he started smoking. Similarly, “Orangutans eat.” is true, even though it is in the present tense and the orangutans are all asleep.


Modal logic.

“Churchill was PM during WW2.” is true, although it is not necessarily true, since Churchill might not have been PM at all. Since the word “is” are used for both contingent and necessary statements, modal logic has been created that make these distinctions explicit.






The Metaphysics of Selection Theory


In this work I give my response to the thesis that consciousness and value are utterly outside of science. I am attempting this within the perspective of Selection Theory (If you are unfamiliar with Selection Theory, see previous post here).   By “utterly outside of science” I mean necessarily or metaphysically outside of the realm of what science can in principle explain. This is what we will call ‘non-naturalism’. Prominent examples include David Chalmers’ position on phenomenal consciousness. Many other arguments or paradoxes seem to support this sort of non-naturalism, such as the “Chinese Room”, “Mary the Color Scientist” and the “Possibility of Zombies”. In what follows, I will try to address this problem and most of these paradoxes from a naturalistic pespective using a vocabulary influenced by Aristotle. I think Aristotle is well-suited for such a project since he took information and function seriously, while constraining his theories with certain empirical demands typical of naturalism. [In a future work we shall look into the tensions of final causation with atomism, but this will not substantially affect our present thesis.] If successful, this approach should provide common solutions challenges to naturalism concerning qualia and ethics.

The Arkhe, genus, and species of Phenomenal Consciousness

Why are so many averse to agreeing that the scientific description of certain things is what they most truly are? For everything that science explains, the most essential nature of what it is is how it is is defined in the accepted theory. Consciousness and ethics should be no exception.

Explaining anything whatsoever means to subsume it under a more universal principle. This is true of all explanations from ethics to math to physics to economics to carpentry, to chess to music to any other skill or science you care to name. With consciousness, the case should be no different; any possible explanation for qualia must derive from a higher (more universal) genus of beings. But what is the genus of beings that of which consciousness is a species?  I have never ever heard anyone give an answer to this other than the one that I propose here, so it seems to me that nobody else can even get started thinking about qualia. In this work we shall  proceed with the naturalistic method, which is pretty much identical to what Aristotle would follow if he were here.

Qualia – a species of the genus “living” and the super-genus “natural”?

For Aristotle, all the different sorts of beings can be potential or actual; and it seems that qualia are not special in this respect, and it’s clear that qualia are not one of the “Categories” either. What about “natural” or “non-natural”?  I know that this is exactly what is up for debate here, but in Aristotle and in this context, “nature” (Gk. “physis”) simply means “that which changes with time’.  There is another sense of “nature” which is oppose to “tekne“, but both of these opposite sense are part of “nature” as we will use it here to mean the realm of “beings which change over time”.  Now we must notice that this is different from Descartes’ thesis that nature as res extensa occupies space. There is much evidence that qualia occupy space, but this will not be assumed for my argument.  However, even Descartes assumes that the res cogitans must change over time and is therefore part of the Aritotelian phusis. If the non-naturalist wishes to say that qualia are not natural, then they are certainly a very different sort of non-natural being from the Forms (unchanging essences) or God (unchanging substance). And of course non-naturalists have no problem with multiplying entities beyond count, for they care not a whit of Occam’s Razor. “Why not?” they might wonder? But it seems clear from a naturalist  perspective that conscious beings (those beings with qualia) are a species of the genera of animals, those beings which move and have sensation.  Animals, in turn are a subset of living things. Since consciousness is a part of biology, we should expect it to have a biological function. So on this view, consciousness must have an adaptive function or be a by-product of some adaptive function. This is exactly what biology assumes when it encounters some unexplained train in nature, and naturalism assumes that qualia are just one more unexplained trait that we have found in a living creature. This obviously true, and non-naturalism should rightly bear the burden of proof for why qualia should not be considered to be a biological trait.


The Role of Non-naturalism in Science.

Furthermore, it seems that many people who profess qualia non-naturalism also profess to being unable to imagine how qualia could have a function and how matter could give rise to qualia. Of course, this is not the only thing that they cannot imagine. They (as well as myself) cannot imagine how nothing can go faster than light, or that time and space did not pre-exist the Big Bang, but both of these have imagined, believed and proven by currently-accepted natural science. The fact that you cannot imagine something is not and cannot be boundary past which science is not allowed to go. Since this is true, non-naturalism must allow that all of its objections are not binding on science but merely voicing the implications of following out common sense intuitions about empirical theories. While it is clear that science is  not at all bound to observe the limits of common sense, non-naturalists do in fact play a postitive role in clearly defining the problems faced by naturalists (i.e. those who actually seek to solve the problems). This is the role played by WIlliam Paley with respect to Darwin, for example. Paley gave his best non-naturalist account of adaptation, which in retrospect we would not even call a “theory”, but it was the dominant theory back then. Qualia non-naturalism today plays the role of Paley for the Darwins of today’s cognitive science.

On the other hand, claiming that conscious beings (or ethical beings) are so unique as to be of an utterly separate ontological category is making a radically unfounded claim that makes further inquiry impossible. Naturalism of the sort defended here claims that ethical and conscious beings are a subset of animals, living things and physical things .Only if we grant this reasonable assumption can we even begin to solve our debates in ethics and metaphysics.

If one is to demand that we explain consciousness or ethics in abstraction from its physical and biological status, we are ipso facto refusing to even consider the possibility of explaining it. The same is true of any scientific subject.

It’s almost as if one demanded that we explain lightning without accepting that it can “be” static electricity. The hardheaded “science-skeptic” could say that lightning “expresses itself through” static electricity or perhaps merely “correlates with” static electricity but could “never be reduced to mere physical phenomena”. One could even adduce the fact that one “could easily imagine” lightning occurring without static electricity in some Twin-Earth thought experiment. This is what Chalmers seriously advocates in his treatment of consciousness, as well as what is implied by any moral non-naturalism that follows G. E. Moore’s ‘Open Question’ argument. Taking this stance makes science of any sort impossible. I am of the view that natural science has already learned that a ‘Twater’  for a “Twin Earth” is impossible, and I think we are close to proving that metaphysical zombies are impossible, and evolutionary science has all the resources needed to prove that a “Moral Twin Earth” is impossible.

Consciousness IS a subset of living systems and everything essential to it can be limited to one of two categories of predicates:

1) What it shares with other physical, living, and animal beings. In Aristotle’s terms, conscious beings share all the essential attributes of any genus of which they are a species. In terms of computer science, conscious objects, inherit all attributes and functions of their superclasses.

2) How it is different from other animals. As Aristotle said, all definitions require a differentiation to define a species within a genus.

But one of the essential attributes of living creatures ( in evolutionary theory ) is that all biological attributes are either adaptations or byproducts of adaptations. This means that consciousness is either epiphenomenal or it is an adaptation. If it is an adaptation, then it MUST have a functional characterization that can be confirmed with the same level of rigor of any other functional analysis in other areas of biology (for example the function(s) of wings, skin, livers, et cetera.). If this is true, consciousness accomplishes the same function as the processes of non-sentient lifeforms, but it uses a different means to fulfill these functions. In my view, it is a radically different means, but not so radical that it requires a non-naturalist categories. Aristotle, were he alive today might say it like this:

  • Merely physical beings (matter, energy) go through change but stay ‘the same’ through all the changes (underneath the appearances).
  • Life is just like matter except one of the changes is goes through is to reproduce more instances of the same/similar form. This is what I refer to when I say that life is essentially information processing.
  • Animal life is just like other life except it also has qualia; movement and sensation.  Perhaps this is what you mean by “consciousness”. Consciousness in this sense is having a subjective experience of sensation, motivation and animal-level identity.
  • Human life is just like other animals life except it also (following Aristotle) “has language” or in other words is “political”.  Both of these mean that humans are defined by their adaptive strategy; the reliance on language to implement rules for cooperation.

There is no other way to do science of humanity.


The Functionalistic Analysis of Phenomenal Consciousness

To answer Chalmers’ non-naturalism in philosophy of mind, we need only give a functionalistic analysis of phenomenal consciousness. The following is one  general idea that could form the beginning of such a theory: Consciousness is kind of like money. The evolution of money is “surprising” in the same way that Chalmers says that consciousness is, but once we see that it has emerged and see how it functions, we can see that money fits perfectly with Darwinian science and the physics of information. Since all life is just information processing, we need only analyze anything in terms of information to learn what it most truly ‘is’.

Using this analysis, we could have predicted  that certain commodities would make ideal forms of money, but we could not predict what money would look like, e.g. that pictures of famous people would be on it (kind of like not being able to predict the “how” of qualia).. We may also be surprised that modern fiat money would predominate over classical ‘hard’ money, but in retrospect, we can see how fiat money functions according to the same basic laws as other money. Under the evolutionary biology defined by the currently accepted physics of information, all of this is a mere extension of the fundamental definition of biological beings. Economics thus defines a normative science that inherits is fundamental principles from more general realms of beings. However, each step down the ladder of Being does introduce surprising / emergent phenomena. Emergent phenomena are fully explainable in retrospect in a reductive manner, but not ahead of time. Thus each newly emergent phenomenon is ‘surprising’ but ultimately natural.


We could not predict the emergence of consciousness, but ultimately it must have ‘the same’ higher-level functions as other forms  of biological information processing.  Animals “could” have been zombies in the same way that (for example) Saturn “could” have been a slightly smaller copy of Jupiter. After all, Jupiter and Saturn are made of basically the same stuff. However, there are mystifying differences between these two planets that could never have been foreseen. (Great Red Spot, greater visible turbulence on Jupiter, Rings and weird polar weather on Saturn, to name a few). These differences are, as with consciousness, due to the surprisingness of complex systems. It’s just that living systems are much more complex, meaning only that their physical patterns are more complex. It is hard to imagine a better solution to the same problem.

The comparison with money works on multiple levels. In the same way that money makes different values comparable among goods for sale, so also does consciousness make different values comparable among the various resources, obstacles, dangers, etc. in the world of an animal. And in both cases, we not only have various values to compare, we also have a privileged locus of comparison the self, which can either be a back account in one case or an individual organism’s subjectivity in the other. Both are forms of information processing, and neither could work without the privileged locus of subjectivity. Both require intersubjectivity to manifest their maximum effect. This is a pretty straight forward hypothesis derived from a well-established theory. The anti-naturalists, on the other hand, have nothing to go with at all except the claims that naturalism is to be eliminated because it contradicts their philosophical categories. This is not at all the first time that some new phenomenon has a clear empirical explanation that conflicts with previous philosophy. The very biochemical concept of life conflicted with previous science. So did the idea that the Earth was a planet. Non-naturalism at any frontier of science is not following a very encouraging precedent.