Saturday, February 25, 2006

Evolution and UFOs: together at last

Evolution: contravener of biblical literalism, destroyer of fragile faiths...perpetuator of UFO conspiracy theories? Normally I wouldn't post something this ridiculous (I'm not trying to cultivate a Daily News sort of readership here) but this was actually too amusing to pass up:
The UFO conspiracy, Riddle argues in a stern, drill-sergeant delivery, is meant to scare society. “But the scariest [thing] of all—banned by courts, schools and politicians—is the Bible . . . Evolution is the foundation for this whole train of thinking

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“The more we learn about science, the more we point to a greater God,” Riddle adds. “Every experiment is a poison to life.”

More debunking. His PowerPoint presentation (every speaker will have his own PowerPoint presentation this weekend) flashes pictures of Roswell, flying saucers, aliens playing basketball and soccer, an artist’s rendition of the psychedelic passage that opens the Book of Ezekiel, where the prophet described seeing “wheels” manned by “four living creatures” with “the likeness of a man.”

UFOs don’t exist, Riddle concludes. Besides, “Why do they always have a New Age message, much like evolution?” And even if aliens did exist, “they’re under the Curse.”

So what causes the popularity of UFO sightings? Evolution.

“That is a fact,” he spits out. “That is an absolute truth. For we have a great Deceiver amongst us,” so deceitful that 10,000 pastors recently lent their name to a letter saying evolution and faith can co-exist.
Personally, I think Riddle might just be a creative genius. I'm not sure I could have conceived of linking Evolution and UFOs together in my wildest dreams. But, then again, I also think Riddle is on to something. After all, if god didn't create those wacky green space aliens, then Darwin certainly must have.

Before I start sounding altogether too much like I belonged in attendance at this meeting I'd like to close with a final request for empirical observation: can somebody collect data on selected religious and scientific beliefs of avowed UFO spotters? I'm terribly interested to know what percentage of people claiming to have been abducted and probed also self-identify as evangelicals and ID supporters. Just curious...


Pursuing Science in the Country of the Blind

Questions about scientific research standards and ethics appear frequently in the news these days: from debating the appropriate guidelines for scientific research (starting with South Korean’s cloning debacle) to what type of scientific research ought to be conducted (or banned) in the first instance (those pesky embryonic stem cells, for instance). At a time when the press to come to a consensus about what direction scientific research ought to take seems to be intensifying, and important scientific policy decisions await on the horizon, I have a slightly different question: are we sure we can trust our own advice?

Forget for a moment where these scientific recommendations come from – the President’s Council, Congress, general referendums, as-yet-unformed advisory groups, or elsewhere – and let’s ask ourselves about the shared assumptions and beliefs, common to all of us at the most basic level as human beings living in a social society, that lie at the heart of our beliefs about what science can and should accomplish.

What the hell am I talking about? Thanks for asking. I was re-reading The Country of the Blind, by H.G. Wells, and stumbled upon the following passage, which offers a helpful illustration of what I’m getting at:
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"Those queer things that are called the eyes, and which exist to make an agreeable depression in the face, are diseased, in the case of Nunez, in such a way as to affect his brain. They are greatly distended, he has eyelashes, and his eyelids move, and consequently his brain is in a state of constant irritation and distraction."

"Yes?" said old Yacob. "Yes?"

"And I think I may say with reasonable certainty that, in order to cure him complete, all that we need to do is a simple and easy surgical operation--namely, to remove these irritant bodies."

"And then he will be sane?"

"Then he will be perfectly sane, and a quite admirable citizen."

"Thank Heaven for science!" said old Yacob, and went forth at once to tell Nunez of his happy hopes.
Wells asks us to tease out the fundamental assumptions that are taken for granted in our pursuit of science (or medicine, or biotechnology). Some of which might appear to a disinterested (perhaps non-human? or non-acculturated?) observer to be slightly bizarre or problematic.

Should we re-examine our obsession with the extension of life? What about our quest for improved and enhanced performance in all aspects of our lives? Or our belief that human beings, in some important way, are special? These are themes of the most general nature, certainly not an exhaustive list, that act as often implicit contributors to our scientific discourse.

But perhaps this is not delving deeply enough. Are there unstated assumptions and biases so deep-seated and ingrained that we lack all capacity to conceptualize them?

These are the biggest of questions and ones that I fully recognize are difficult to answer in a helpful manner. Nevertheless, as we either praise or condemn, depending on your point of view, the development of science and technology it’s worth a moment of reflection to wonder at the motivations that underlie the whole grand scheme.


Industrial Strength Taxonomy

Normally I don’t bother writing about articles that appear in subscription only journals and magazines, for obvious reasons. However, I can’t resist a plug for Brian Fisher and his ants from Madagascar.

Antsy in Madagascar” appears in the March 2006 issue of Discover Magazine and is nearly worth the price of admission on its own. Fisher is a new breed of entomologist who has taken a passion for finding, identifying, and cataloguing the world’s species, ants in this case, to an unprecedented level. E.O. Wilson, a man who knows a thing or two about ants himself, describes Fisher’s methods as “industrial-strength taxonomy.”
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Ultimately Fisher’s goal is to get people excited about ants. To identify and catalog all of the estimated 22,000 ant species worldwide (about 12,000 are currently described), to make all of that information freely available online, and, in so doing, to give people the tools and information that allow them to “be as gung ho about [ants] as he is.”

Gung ho about ants? Fine, maybe not the boring little pavement ant, tetramorium caesptium, that used to regularly invade my childhood bedroom when it rained. But what about Meliosstarsus:
It’s the only ant genus where the adults produce silk. The whole gigantic head is a big silk gland. The front legs have been modified into silk brushes, to pull out silk and stretch it to where it is needed. The funniest thing about this ant is that its middle legs go up instead of down because it lives in tunnels. Put it in your hand, and it can’t walk.

Very neat. Not quite neat enough to inspire me to enroll in graduate school in entomology but neat enough to send me poking around on antweb.org, Fisher’s brainchild, long enough to make a contribution of my own.

And that, in the end, is Fisher’s goal: the democratization, and the popularization, of ants.


Friday, February 24, 2006

Insanity Democracy in Action

And it begins (again).

South Dakota is likely to become the first state (Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky are all in line as well) to ban abortion in virtually all situations. The bill has already passed both state houses and awaits only the signature of governor Michael Rounds, who isn’t expected to veto it.
The South Dakota law concludes that life begins at conception based on medical advances over the past three decades. Proposed amendments to the law to create exceptions to specifically protect the health of the mother, or in cases of rape or incest, were voted down. Also defeated was an amendment to put the proposal in the hands of voters.

If this bill is signed into law and upheld in the courts (and, sadly, I believe that it will be) it will represent a travesty for individual liberty in this country. I’m sorry but I want to meet the father or mother who has had their child raped, had her request an abortion, and then turned her town out of concern for the fetus.
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There are, I suppose, reasonable differences of opinion on whether a woman should have the right to terminate a healthy, willfully consummated pregnancy and, if so, under what circumstances. But I fail to see how there can be any justification for punishing once again the victim of rape or incest by forcing her to continue with an unasked for and unwanted pregnancy.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Drown 'em out, don't throw 'em in jail

While Austria is jailing David Irving for his unconscionable views a group of bikers known as the Patriot Guard is trying a different approach with anti-gay activist, and complete lunatic, Fred Phelps.

The Patriot Guard, a group of bikers more than 5,000 strong, travels in groups around the country to cheer respectfully at the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq. Why on Earth, you might reasonably wonder, are they cheering, respectfully or otherwise, at a funeral? To drown out the jeers and the taunts of Phelps and his followers:
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Phelps believes American deaths in Iraq are divine punishment for a country that he says harbors homosexuals. His protestors carry signs thanking God for so-called IEDs - explosives that are a major killer of soldiers in Iraq.

Wow. Without question it is men like Fred Phelps that make us wish, for just a moment, that we could, like Austria, toss certain people directly into jail, no trial, no passing go, no nothing. But unless you're an enemy combatant that's not how this country works and, so, we should acknowledge the efforts of the members of the Patriot Guard to drown out Phelps and co. while state legislatures in Kentucky and elsewhere seek to find a democratic solution to the problem.

The whole situation initially struck me as confusing and bizarre. And in some respects it is. But it's a lot more rational and appropriate than just throwing someone in jail and having done with it.


Stem Cells by Osmosis

Almost a week ago Michael Gazzaniga, a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, wrote that all clones are not the same. What Gazzaniga meant, more precisely, was that all forms of cloning are not the same. An important point to make after Bush’s state of the union characterization of all forms of cloning as “the most egregious abuses of medical research.”

But Gazzaniga doesn’t stop there, continuing on to attack the current restrictions on embryonic stem cell research (ESRC), especially the president’s ban on developing new stem cell lines.
I wholeheartedly agree with Gazzaniga that the restrictive ESRC climate in the United States is a problem, and I find his critique of pursuing, for reasons of political expediency, alternative technologies at the expense of the best known research avenues particularly persuasive.
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But I think that his attempt to redefine “human life” is, unfortunately, unlikely to be successful. Gazzaniga is right to recognize the clear dualism that causes us to view fully developed human beings – our friends, family members, even our enemies – differently from a cluster of embryonic cells. But, realistically, I believe this is something that most opponents of ESRC are implicitly, if not explicitly, aware of.

The more serious obstacle standing in the way of ESRC is not uncommon: an inertial resistance to new technology, a barrier of which Gazzaniga is well aware:
At the most recent meeting of our bioethics council, Patricia Churchland, a distinguished philosopher from the University of California at San Diego, observed that through history, medical innovations — from vaccines to anesthesia — have been initially resisted only to later be widely accepted. It will be the same with stem cells.

And in this prediction I think Gazzaniga is entirely correct. As with so many other technologies it will not be the reasoned examination of what constitutes “human life” that ultimately leads to the acceptance of ESRC. Quite frankly, that's just too much work for too many members of the general public who have other things to worry about at the end of the day.

The much more likely scenario is one that makes use of stem cell's own inertial energy to ultimately legitimize ESRC. The key to unlocking the political chains that gird ESRC is not to reconceptualize “human life” as a term inapplicable to a cluster of cells, but to reconceptualize a cluster of cells as no more extraordinary than being given a vaccine, or believing that the Earth is round.

Like it or not, stem cells are here to stay. We just need to give that fact a little bit more time to sink in.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Teaching Reporting the Controversy

The Discovery Institute started a petition skeptical of Darwinian evolution in 2001. Since then, according to an article by Kenneth Chang in today's NY Times, the petition has been signed by 514 scientists and engineers, although "only a quarter of the signers are biologists, whose field is most directly concerned with evolution."

Why, exactly, is this significant? It's hardly breaking news that the Discovery Institute's intelligent design position is unpopular among scientists generally, and even more so among biologists. Which the Times piece confirms. Also reported: many of the signers "are evangelical Christians, whose doubts about evolution grew out of their religious beliefs." Unless you've been detained at Guantanamo living in a cave recently you already knew this.
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It's not at all clear what real news is being reported in this article. And why do I care? While the Discovery Institute has been thus far largely unsuccessful in carrying out its "teach the controversy" attack on evolution, it has been indisputably successful on a parallel front: "report the controversy."

As the saying goes, "there's no publicity that's bad publicity." When the Discovery Institute, or other advocates of creationism or intelligent design, enters the public forum and inflicts its thinly veiled religious agenda upon public school systems in Kansas or Ohio or Pennsylvania the media, along with serious scientists and concerned citizens, has a responsibility to shine a light on the situation. But I wonder if at other times, now being one of them, whether it might not be prudent to allow the Discovery Institute and others, already reeling from recent setbacks in Ohio and Pennsylvania, to languish on the sidelines of the public debate.


Monday, February 20, 2006

A Prison Term is only a Microphone

Today British Historian David Irving was sentenced to three years in prison for purportedly denying that there were no Nazi gas chambers at the Auschwitz death camp. Irving, a "notorious holocaust denier", is a condemnable figure, and his statements are demonstrably false. Nevertheless, I wonder at the wisdom of sentencing the man to jail. Men who shout in the public square that the holocaust never happened (or that the Earth is flat, or the moon made of cheese) are denounced as maniacs and crackpots, ultimately they are ignored by most. But imprison them and they may attain the status of martyrdom, fueling conspiracy theories.

I don't know the Austrian legal status of free speech but I contend that in Austria, as is the case anywhere, the best weapon against harmful, hateful, unconscionable speech is truth, not a muzzle. Present the truth to those that are not already aware and let men like David Irving scream into a howling wind of public indifference.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Personal Genome Project

The AJoB blog has drawn my attention to the Personal Genome Project (PGP) which is exactly what it sounds like: an attempt to make personal genome sequences readily (and affordably) available. The PGP is certainly not running this race alone - The Scientist has a nice article entitled "Beyond Sanger: Toward the $1,000 Genome - but I'm amenable to the open-source nature of the PGP.

The Cost of a Cure

The Times has an interesting article about Avastin, a colon cancer drug for which its maker Genetech plans to charge $100,000 a year. That steep price tag raises a number of questions, most notably a suite of difficult ones suggested by the conundrum of a drug that is potentially both life-saving and bankrupting.

It's not difficult for me to imagine that there are some colon cancer sufferers out there who wish that Avastin, with its astronomical price tag, simply didn't exist. I think there is mentality, especially among certain segments of our society, that while government agencies and insurance companies may place a dollar value on a life, no amount should be too much when it comes to saving the life of a friend or a loved one.
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Well that philosophy is certainly being put to the test. How do individuals handle the presence of life-saving drugs that they simply can't (or won't) pay for because to do so would be financially crippling for themselves or for their family? How does a doctor tell a patient that a treatment that might save her life is too expensive? And is anything going to stop the rising cost of some of these drugs? Will it require some form of regulatory intervention?

Finally, an out of left field question for general consideration: Do we feel differently about the cancer patient who refuses a life-saving treatment for economic reasons than we do about the cancer patient who desires euthanasia to avoid being a financial burden on her family? If so, why?


Ohio is OK

It's almost old news by this point: on Tuesday the Ohio Board of Education voted 11 to 4 to strike from their curriculum a biology lesson plan that mandated critical analysis of evolution. The decision, another setback for the intelligent design campaign, is an about face for a state which was the first to adopt special standards for criticizing evolution in 2002.

The decision is the right one - singling out evolution alone among scientific theories for critical analysis is clearly inappropriate. However, as I wrote last month, it's important for the champions of Darwinian evolution not to tip the scales too far in the direction of unquestioning acceptance of evolution. All scientific theories, including the theory of evolution, deserve to be critically analyzed by the students to whom they are taught. After all, it is that analysis that prompts the important, searching questions that help move science, including the science of evolution, forward.

No matter how many courtroom victories evolution claims, if it is ultimately taught in biology classrooms nationwide as a set of fixed, settled principles about which nothing more remains to be said, it will be a loss for science.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Happy Valentine's Day


How many words is this one worth? Happy Valentine's Day all.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Happy Birthday: Charles Darwin


Charles Darwin turns 197 today. Anybody for some badminton?
[thanks to the AJoB blog for the link]

Update: The Questionable Authority has nicely aggregated many of the blogosphere's posts and pictures commemorating Darwin Day.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Should OTC Gene Tests be Regulated?

Genetic testing kits, sold in stores and through the internet in over a thousand varieties, have been booming in both number and popularity in recent years. When researchers discover new genes with a suspected link to a particular disease it’s only a matter of time before that gene is integrated into any number of test kits available for home administration. This despite the fact that the gene-disease “links” are often speculative, attenuated, and poorly understood.

But the genetic tests keep coming, despite a recent report presented by researchers at a meeting on genomics and public health at the Royal College of Physicians in London that there is no evidence that the tests provide any benefits to patients.
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A recent Guardian article points out that
The tests have emerged because regulations only require them to be safe and measure the genes they claim to. As yet, there is no requirement for companies to prove that finding genes has any bearing on the person's future health.
Which begs the question, “Should we demand tighter regulations for over-the-counter genetic testing?” OTC genetic tests strike me as a paradigmatic example of an emerging technology which has leapt out ahead of the political and legislative framework required to successfully integrate it into society and make it available for mainstream consumption.

It appears, at least at the moment, that most if not all of the OTC genetic tests are benign at best; and misleading and confusing at worst. While I don’t think that OTC genetic tests are a bad idea per se, I do think that full and accurate disclosure of what a genetic test can and cannot disclose about one’s current or future health is even more important in the OTC environment than it is in a clinical setting.

When we consider the extensive disclosure and informed consent requirements that are in place, in most instances, before a genetic test can be administered by a trained profession, it's almost stunning that there are not similar requirements for OTC genetic tests.

There’s no question that it’s important for bioethicists to think about the future – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t pressing problems that need to be solved today.


Cheering the Cheaters

With the arrival of the Winter Olympics in Torino Arthur Caplan has written a new column for MSNBC.com (also posted on the AJoB blog) on the ongoing (and unsuccessful) campaign to eliminate doping from competitive sports.

Caplan’s column mixes a healthy dose of witticisms with a plea for the common sports fan: stop cheering the cheaters.
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Odd as it may be, it is you and I who determine the extent to which drug doping permeates the Olympics. At the end of the day, if we don't want cheating in the Olympics then we cannot behave as if the one and only goal for each and every athlete is winning a gold medal.

If all the honor, money and celebrity accrue only to those who finish first then no matter what testing is done, athletes will cheat. So while testing for drugs is important, the best antidote to doping is not to create a culture in which only those who finish first count. Not to do so guarantees that there will be a few more Zach Lund skeletons in our national closet before the Turin games are through

Caplan readily admits that he views most performance-enhancing drugs as having no place in athletics. Personally, I don’t entirely share Caplan’s view. If we’re going to allow skeleton racers (to borrow Caplan's topical example) to endanger their health by hurtling themselves downhill at faster-than-highway speeds, inches from the ground in unenclosed vehicles, it seems slightly hypocritical to object to their use of performance-enhancing substances because they are unsafe.

Nevertheless, I concur in Caplan’s argument that attempting to fight cutting edge doping techniques by developing equally sophisticated antidoping countermeasures is a losing battle. With the cheaters always a step ahead the solution seems to be to remove the incentive for athletes to break the rules, to find a way, as Caplan suggests, to make athletics something more than winning gold.

But how do we do this? Telling fans what they shouldn’t do - create a culture where “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” - fails to tell those fans what they should do instead. Should we tune out during the medal ceremony after every event? Should we only buy boxes of Wheaties with silver medalists on the front?

In sports winning clearly isn’t everything, and it certainly isn’t the only thing, but I’m not convinced that it won’t always be the most important thing. And that’s a problem for Caplan’s proposal.


Hitting the Stop Button on Genetic Panic

A fairly recent (January 30th) column in the Guardian announces that "there is no stop button in the race for human re-engineering." According to the piece, the next quarter of a century will bring expected life spans of 110 years, substantial genetic modification of embryos, cognitive enhancement for schoolchildren through pharmacogenetics, and "iPod chips" implanted behind the ear.

And this is hardly science fiction. For columnist Madeleine Bunting, the post-human world "outlined above for my descendants was the most benign I could imagine. There's no point in sci-fi style panic." No point in panic indeed.

Bunting would have her readers believe that the future she outlines is "the most conservative of a range of scenarios about the possibilities of 'human enhancement.'" In fact, by engaging in what, despite her claims to the contrary, can only be described as science-fiction, Bunting is undoubtedly inducing precisely the sort of panic among some segment of her readers that she claims to disdain. By labeling her depiction of the future as "conservative" Bunting leaves it up to the imagination of her readings to spin the more dire tails: armies of clones, human-octopus hybrids, giant organ farms populated by orphaned children, an immortal Vice-President Cheney, etc.
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Because Bunting's ultimate point - that the UK should participate in the debate over how existing and emerging genetic technologies should be pursued in labs and integrated into society - is a sound one I can recommend the article is worthy of a quick read. But it's critically important to distinguish Bunting's ultimate thesis from the tactics she uses to convey that message. The media's sensationalization of genetic technologies - both in reporting on the import and consequences of current breakthroughs and in imagining the long-term implications and applications of these technologies - only serves to drown out and obscure the reasoned and scientifically grounded debate that is vital to ensuring the successful development and implemenation of new and more powerful science.

Quite simply, it is in no way inevitable that by the year 2030 we will all live to be 110. Given that we're still looking at grapes and fish to help understand the basics of longevity such a prediction can't fairly be described as "conservative" either. What is inevitable, and what Bunting recognizes when she says that we can't hit the "stop button", is that the science underlying genetic engineering continues apace almost entirely apart from the moral disapprobation of certain segments of society.

It is the ongoing evolution of genetic science and technologies which presents us with an opportunity for careful scientific debate, and which is already saturated with fantastic media-generated imaginings of the future. Today we are presented with real and immediate questions of ethics and policy that deserve immediate address. To answer these questions we need an open debate that not only imagines the future of genetic technologies but also endeavors at a reasonable calculation of their probability, and pays appropriate respect to the inherent contingency of any scenario purporting to describe the world a quarter of a century hence.

In contemplating the future we must decide how to allocate scarce scientific resources and how to craft policies that best guide the inevitable development of the genetic sciences down a path we believe to be morally palatable. To do this we must avoid engaging in hyberpole and sci-fi panic; engage our rational faculties rather than our gut instincts.

Bunting, I think, understands this basic idea. Unfortunately, re-packaging fantastic science-fiction scenarios as a "conservative" and realistic prediction of the future isn't all that helpful.


The Fountain of Youth, Filled with Wine

Eagerly awaiting the Singularity? Forget genetic modification and nonbiological intelligence for a moment and try munching on some grapes. Scientific American.com recently reported on a study in Current Biology in which an organic compound found in grapes, as well as in berries and some nuts, extended the life span of fish in captivity by more than 50 percent.

The compound, resveratrol, is particularly concentrated in red wines such as pinot noir, and may prove beneficial to species beyond fish, including humans.

Time to break out that rusty old chalice you’ve been hanging on to.

The Long Walk (or the Short Run) Home

Nature.com reports that a UK researcher, Andrew Crompton of Manchester University, has provided evidence confirming the theory that individuals judge familiar routes to be longer than unfamiliar ones. The more well-traversed a particular distance, say from our home to the corner grocery, the greater we exaggerate the actual distance involved.

The finding backs the idea that distances elongate in our minds because, over time, we begin to notice more and more minutiae about a route, an idea called the feature-accumulation theory. "As detail accumulates, the distance seems to get bigger," Crompton says.

It's an interesting finding, but hardly one worth remarking upon. Except for one thing: it entirely diverges from my own empirical observations.
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The headline drew my attention precisely because I have long commented, to myself and my others, how much shorter familiar paths feel than unfamiliar ones. When running.

When I run outdoors I prefer familiar, well-known paths to unexplored trails. Even when the actual distance is the same the familiar trail invariably feels like a shorter, easier run for me. Which is exactly the opposite of the conclusion drawn by Andrew Crompton's various studies.

So what's the explanation? Is Compton wrong? Are my experiences an anomaly? Or is there a more intuitive explanation premised on the difference between running and walking (or driving)?

My own off-the-cuff theory is this: running, at least for many people, involves blocking out external distractions and getting into a rhythm. Marathoners (as well as other athletes) frequently talk about finding "the zone." I'm no marathoner, but I do like to zone out while I run. Listening to music, watching TV, running on a treadmill, all these things help that process along. So does running along familiar terrain past well-known scenery.

On the other hand, new terrain provides the precise distractions that keep me from finding the zone while I run. If I'm forced to pay attention to where I put my feet, to the details of my surroundings (never know when you might be approaching a blind intersection, or a grizzly crossing, or some other obstacle) it's hard for me to detach my mind from my feet and settle in to my run. Consequently I find myself working harder and the run seems longer.

Does this explain why familiar running routes feel shorter to me? Perhaps. Does it help reconcile my experiences with Crompton's data? I'm not sure that it does. Does any of this matter one bit to you? I'd be shocked.


Thursday, February 09, 2006

Science, Religion and Evolution: Duke University Lectures

Thanks to a friend for drawing my attention to this great resource. Over the course of the current academic year Duke University is sponsoring a series of lectures centered on the theme of Science, Religion and Evolution.
It will seek to illuminate questions such as: what are science and the scientific method and how do these engage the subject of evolution? What is the historical relationship of religion and science? How has the theory of evolution itself evolved and what are the pre-eminent scientific puzzles in the theory? What is the relationship of religious belief to the theory of and empirical support for evolution?

The list of speakers is impressive and the freely available audio/video recordings are a nice bonus. Go here for information on upcoming speakers, and go here to see summaries of previous talks, along with links to the talks themselves.

Unknown Unknowns Revisted

I recently attended a lecture on Health Law, Bioethics, and Human Rights given by Professor George Annas, the chair of Health Law, Bioethics & Human Rights at the Boston University School of Public Health, distinguished scholar, and a very nice man. During the course of his lecture Professor Annas made a passing and somewhat opaque reference to a rather remarkable quote by our much-maligned (by myself included) Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld.

The confounding quote in question, which Rumsfeld inflicted upon us during a 2003 press briefing on Iraq, is as follows:
Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know.

That unmanageable mouthful earned Rumsfeld the 2003 Plain English Campaign's award for most baffling remark by a public figure. And when you read it quickly, and especially if you have it read aloud to you, it sounds like absolute gobbledygook. But it’s not.
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In fact, as much as it pains me to say this, I’ll venture that what Rumsfeld was talking about – the notion of "unknown unknowns" – is one of the most central themes in bioethics and biotechnology. Professor Annas may have made this point and if he did (and I missed it) I apologize in advance. But in case he didn’t, or even if he did, I think it’s important to draw attention to this concept.

Especially in the realm of bioethics and biotechnology there is great concern and much hand-wringing over the future consequences of emerging technologies such as reproductive cloning, genetic engineering, or any of the other “most egregious abuses of medical research." With all the prophesies of post-humans, armies of clones, and doomsday-by-genetic-modification scenarios (and, equally, all the utopian predictions of a world freed from disease, hunger, and poverty through the miraculous power of the gene) it is worth remembering that the only inevitable development is that the future will bring with it surprises, and probably great ones.

It bespeaks the fact that we must always figure on novelty without ever being able to figure it out; that change is certain, but not what the changed condition will be. Further inventions and discoveries, for example, cannot be anticipated and allowed for. Only the fact that there will continually be some, and among them some of great, occasionally even of revolutionary significance, is close to certain.
-- Jonas, Hans. The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1984. 119-120.


While we attempt to do the best that we can with unknowns of both the known and the unknown variety the capacity simply does not exist to fully and accurately predict what will or will not be possible, and what will or will not result from the technologies and policies we pursue today. And it is nothing if not dangerous to suspect otherwise.


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

As Morality Slips Away

An interesting piece in yesterday's NY Times examines the shifting moral compass of penitentiary guards working with death row inmates across the nation. The article provides interesting insights into the moral codes utilized by the prison guards, and suggests that the practice of 'moral distancing' is commonly employed as a coping mechanism.

For those of us who aren't charged with administering lethal injections to death row inmates, the notion of 'moral distancing' remains of interest. The study also examined members of the support staff - individuals not directly involved in the execution itself, including counselors - and concluded that, over time, their mere proximity to the executions produced a form of moral ambivalence.
The finding stands as a caution to the millions of people who work in the service of organizations whose motives they mistrust, psychologists say: shifts in moral judgment are often unconscious, and can poison the best instincts and intentions.

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As a student contemplating the merits of transitioning to life in corporate America the finding is particularly discomfiting. Long have I feared the slow slippage of my moral compass, by immeasurable degrees, only to look in the mirror after a decade of following instructions and no longer recognize myself.

Often I imagined (hoped?) that this fear bordered on paranoia. "To the degree that I am cognizant of the danger," I reasoned to myself, "then I must run a correspondingly low risk of succumbing to it." Further, what sort strength of morals do I truly possess if my morality is unable to survive the stresses and the demands of corporate America?

But these arguments were advanced with the hope that 'moral distancing' was more imagined than real, a boogeyman imagined and not a true enemy. If that is not the case, as the article suggests, then it is time to investigate much more carefully the problem of moral distancing, and whether or not it is best combated by the bright light of awareness, or the prophylactic measure of avoidance.


Garden of Eden Discovered

Kangaroos and anteaters and bowerbirds, oh my! High in the mountainous rainforests of New Guinea scientists have discovered a place that is "as close to the Garden of Eden as you're going to find on Earth."

We now eagerly await pictures, as well as the first attempts to spin this extraordinary discovery of biological diversity as evidence of intelligent design...

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Stuffed Suit


We may not be going to Mars anytime soon, but at least NASA is having a good time up in the heavens. Tomorrow a rather unusual satellite will be launched: a stuffed spacesuit.

Looking Backward to Mars

With this year's State of the Union safely in the rearview - and filled with nothing of any particular note - I thought it was time to take a look back at some of W's resolutions from last year. In particular, does anybody remember the "new vision" for space exploration? The one meant to "enable future exploration of Mars and other destinations"?

The plan was announced shortly before last year's State of the Union. So, just how is that going exactly?
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While NASA has been in the news recently (for the wrong reasons), there hasn't been much more said by NASA or the administration about manned missions to Mars, or to the moon for that matter. Granted, it's an ambitious project, but how about a progress report, or some encouraging words in this year's speech? Nope. The president made nary a mention of Mars, Moon, NASA or even outer space.

But that isn't to suggest that cutting-edge science research isn't a presidential priority: "Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms..."

I can only hope that this most recent 'science' proposal is allowed to join last year's Martian plan and quietly fade into the background...


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Ignorance, Bliss, and the Right Not to Know

An article published a few weeks ago in the New York Times provides a concrete example - two sisters dealing with the risk of breast cancer - of an increasingly complex and difficult problem for bioethics: 'the right not to know.'

An individual's right not to know - in this case to refuse genetic testing - is asserted and defended on a number of levels. In discussing this question I'm posting an excerpt from a prior paper I wrote on the topic: "Ignorace, Belief, and the Socratic Way of Life."
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[Excerpt from "Ignorance, Belief, and the Socratic Way of Life"]

“Thought would destroy their paradise! / No more; where ignorance is bliss / 'Tis folly to be wise.”

- Thomas Gray[1]

“[I]t is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for men.”

- Socrates[2]

Understanding “Ignorance is Bliss”

At first blush there appears to be an inherent and obvious tension between the Socratic way of life and Gray’s aphorism. With support from Socrates himself, who claims that “the unexamined life is not worth living for men,”[3] While the concepts of ignorance and examination are not perfect antonyms they nevertheless do not seem to harmonize well, if at all. But before moving too hastily to conclude that there is no room for ignorance in the Socratic way of life we must first give Gray’s words some teeth. We must ask, that is, what the saying “ignorance is bliss” could reasonably be taken to mean by those who employ it in their lives?

The first attempt at defining this maxim leads to the strongest and most clearly absurd postulation: that by “ignorance is bliss” it is meant “ignorance of all things is bliss.” This, I imagine, would entail something like an individual burying her head in the sand whenever knowledge or information threatened to disrupt an otherwise blissful state of ignorance. Apart from a basic problem of circularity – how can one embrace the concept that ignorance of all things is blissful without first being aware, and thus no longer ignorant, of this maxim and its supposed value? – consider what else would result: there would be no cause to conduct research into a cure for AIDS, cancer, or world hunger. To do so would decrease our ignorance about the causes of disease and of starvation. Similarly, we would avoid sending craft into the solar system or under the sea because this would decrease our scientific ignorance. Hence the proposition seems, at least facially, to be one that no reasonably human being would ever accept. Nevertheless, let us look closer.

While “Ignorance of all things is bliss” entails the universal proposition that I ought never to increase my knowledge, a proposition that appears to me to be obviously absurd, my own belief in its absurdity is hardly sufficient to satisfy my mandate to examine this proposition Socratically. Instead, I propose to reject the claim that ignorance of all things is bliss by deriving from it a logical contradiction:

P = Pa & Pb = I ought never to increase my knowledge.

Pa = Ignorance of all things is bliss.

Pb = Increase in knowledge of any thing results in a diminishment of ignorance.

A = I consume food (calories) in order to be alive and, thus, retain the capacity to be blissful.

B = I must increase my knowledge about where to obtain food, how to identify objects as edible, etc., in order to be able to consume food.

1. P -> ~ B

2. A -> B

3. B

4. ~ B

5. B & ~ B

6. Therefore, ~ P

The argument against the proposition that ignorance of all things is bliss has now been formalized using the Socratic technique of reductio ad absurdum. The contradictory conclusion that results from the assumption that ignorance of all things is bliss can be summarized as follows: I must not decrease my ignorance about food if I want to be blissful but, on the other hand, I must decrease my ignorance about food if I want to stay alive. What follows from this logical contradiction is that we must reject one of the initial propositions from which the contradiction derives. In this case, the clear candidate for rejection is the premise that I ought never to increase my knowledge (P).[4] Also note that from the same premise “Ignorance of all things is bliss” it is not difficult to develop any number of equally problematic contradictions and so I think it is safe to conclude that it is a premise that must be rejected.

Of course, rejecting the proposition that ignorance of all things is bliss as absurd admittedly fails to show that “ignorance is bliss” is itself a meaningless or irrational dictate. There very well be some other formulation of the phrase that proves reasonable. In the following section I consider two different justifications for belief [5] and, in the process, reformulate the claim for ignorance to establish a version of the proposal that “ignorance is bliss” which, when appropriately qualified, appears to me quite reasonable. The new, heavily qualified, postulation explained and examined in the following pages is that whereas ignorance of all things is absurd, some people may reasonably accept ignorance as blissful in certain circumstances.

Prudential or Epistemic Reasons for Belief

To understand how, and in what contexts, ignorance can be blissful or desirable I examine two different justifications for belief – prudential and epistemic – and the relationship of ignorance to each of them. The latter, epistemic, provides justification for belief in terms of truth or knowledge and denies the value, though not the inevitability, of ignorance. The former, prudential, justification hinges on an analysis of the benefits created and instrumental ends served by accepting certain beliefs and is, as a result, indifferent to the notion of ignorance except insofar as it relates to the individual’s instrumental ends, whatever they may be. Accordingly, it matters whether one employs a prudential or an empirical justification for belief. Under the prudential justification for belief it may indeed be beneficial to hold a belief in ignorance – that is, a positive belief about that which is untrue or simply unknowable. The empirical justification, on the other hand, rejects the possibility of a justified belief held in ignorance. Therefore, my qualified claim in support of certain kinds of ignorance can only logically be accepted if the empirical justification for belief fails to overcome fully the argument in support of prudential justification.

1. Prudential Reasons for Belief

Perhaps the best known argument advanced in favor of prudential belief is that of Pascal’s Wager.[6] The wager, Pascal says, is whether or not to believe in God. “Either God exists, or he does not exist” but “reason can determine nothing.”[7] Furthermore, you must wager,[8] you must bet either on God’s existence or against it.[9] And, at least potentially, everything is at stake: “if you win, you win everything; if you lose you lose nothing. Don’t hesitate then. Take a bet that he exists.”[10] Pascal’s famous conclusion is that the choice is clear – if we are to act rationally we must gamble that God exists, and attempt to shape our beliefs accordingly.

I flesh out, briefly, the reasoning behind Pascal’s prudential argument. Pascal argues that utility gained from believing in a God that exists is infinite and positive, coming in the form of heaven and eternal happiness, whereas the utility of all other options – wagering against an extant God, wagering for a God that doesn’t exist, or wagering against a God that doesn’t exist – is either negative, finite, or both. Furthermore, the probability that God exists is finite and not infinitesimal according to Pascal: “you have one chance of winning against a finite number of chances of losing.”[11] The argument concludes with the assertion that reason requires us to perform utility maximization in this sort of wager and so, when “the chances of gain and loss are equal, and the infinite is the prize,”[12] rationality requires us to wager for God.

The specific philosophical and logical objections to Pascal’s wager, of which there are plenty, are unimportant here. What is important is that Pascal’s wager remains as a paradigmatic example of a prudential justification for belief – of the notion that one’s belief, in this case a belief in the existence of God, may be justified despite the believer’s complete ignorance as to the truth of that belief. Pascal’s classic argument uses a prudential justification to address a situation where he asserts the problem of ignorance is fundamental and unavoidable.[13] I now turn to consider several situations in which similar prudential justifications are employed to suggest that ignorance, though not fundamental and unavoidable, is nevertheless deemed desirable.

In Ender’s Game, an award-winning science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card,[14] Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a military prodigy who undergoes intensive training to prepare him for his role in the fight to save the human race from alien invaders. As part of his training Ender fights increasingly difficult simulated battles against increasingly unmanageable odds. The casualties on both sides are enormous but the calculating, strategic Ender manages to emerge victorious, time and time again. Only after the final battle does it become apparent to Ender that there was no simulation; the battles which Ender fought were real, as were the lives lost on both sides. The final, victorious simulation was nothing other than the culminating battle between humankind and the alien race, a battle in which an unwitting Ender wiped out an entire civilization while preserving the human one.

What is the explanation offered for the elaborate deception of Ender Wiggin? Ender’s teachers, the principal adult figures in a novel depicting predominantly children, offer a prudential justification: only if Ender, who was already experiencing feelings of anguish and remorse over what he believed to be simulated battles, was ignorant of the true nature of his actions, and of the true cost in lives of his military decisions, could he have possibly achieved the result that they desired. Ender had to believe he was fighting a simulated battle in order to emerge victorious from the real thing. It is important to note that this instrumental goal, the destruction of the alien race, may never have been Ender’s own. In the final chapter of the novel, after uncovering his deception, Ender repents his genocidal acts and resolves to atone for his crime on behalf of all humanity by telling the story of the aliens.

Similarly, individuals who assert their right not to know in the context of medical and genetic ethics also employ a prudential justification for certain beliefs though, unlike Ender, they frequently do so in furtherance of their own personal endeavors. A simple sketch[15] of the debate concerning the right not to know will suffice for our purposes: there are some individuals who, when diagnosed with a terminal disease for which there is no known treatment or cure, or found to have a deleterious genetic condition, wish to assert a right not to know their unfavorable diagnosis. The knowledge that one possesses a disease (or, in the case of a gene, that one will develop a harmful condition at some future time) can have, for many, profound psychological and physical consequences. In such cases the specter of such damaging knowledge serves as the basis for a prudential justification for those who assert their right not to know their medical or genetic condition, and who continue to believe in their own good health.

Any justificatory scheme that depends on the truth of that belief could not support the individual’s belief held in ignorance. If the patient is to be allowed to live in a condition of obvious ignorance, believing herself to be medically or genetically healthy when in fact she is not, then a prudential justification for the belief must be invoked. What follows is that, in such cases, the individual who asserts her right not to know attaches more importance to the instrumental result of that belief than to the truth of that belief.[16] At this point it begins to be apparent how an individual, making use of prudential justifications for her beliefs, could easily determine the qualified version of Gray’s aphorism – ignorance of some things is bliss – to be a reasonable proposition.

As mentioned above, Pascal’s ignorance in wagering is ignorance borne out of necessity – we are “incapable of knowing either what [God] is, or whether he exists”[17] – and so there is, he claims, no other choice but to rest a belief in God on something other than epistemic grounds. Nor can I choose not to believe in God and expect to find an epistemic justification to support that belief. As William James points out, if no epistemic evidence exists with which to justify a decision then “…to say, under such circumstances, ‘Do not decide, but leave the question open,’ is itself a passional decision,— just like deciding yes or no,— and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.[18] In the absence of an epistemic justification it is, at least in certain situations, impossible to simply hold no belief. James contends, and I concur, that in determining whether or not to believe in God I must employ something like a prudential justification,[19] or at least some justificatory scheme other than an epistemic one, because I simply am unable to obtain any empirical evidence one way or another as to the existence of God.

Pascal’s wager, and the form of ignorance it touches upon, is fundamentally different from the type of ignorance implicated in the examples drawn from Ender’s Game and the assertion of one’s right not to know. Ender’s ignorance was hardly compelled. His teachers could have chosen not to deceive him, and thus never create his state of ignorance, but they made what they contended was a prudentially justified decision to do so. “Deception”, the claim would go, “is the only way to save the human race, and the survival of the human race is more valuable than Ender holding a true belief about these battles which he is fighting.” Still, at least in Ender’s case ignorance, while not absolutely compelled, was imposed and not voluntarily assumed. In contrast, in the case of patients who exercise a right not to know, individuals affirmatively desire to hold beliefs in ignorance of available knowledge about their physical state of being. The obvious question, at least the one that comes first to my mind, is why anyone would ever voluntarily choose to deceive themselves, to deny themselves access to significant information that is obtainable with a minimum of effort on their part?[20]

Barry Schwartz, in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,[21] answers this question by way of a discussion of the harms posed by too many choices. Schwartz argues that selective ignorance may be valuable in far more contexts than those I have heretofore suggested. Writing generally about the threat posed by too many options, Schwartz comments that

[w]hen people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.[22]

We can tie Schwartz’s discussion about the paradox of choice to the examination of the Socratic way of life and beliefs held in ignorance by noting that the existence of choice necessarily implicates knowledge. Awareness of options, or choices, is a form of knowledge and, correspondingly, in opposition to ignorance. Regardless of how many choices there are they can neither liberate nor tyrannize the individual that is unaware of their existence. Thus, to the extent that Schwartz suggests voluntarily restricting or limiting our choices he must also simultaneously promote a particular form of ignorance.

On Schwartz’s argument, complete ignorance (i.e. total absence of choice) makes life “almost unbearable” and, thus, Schwartz too clearly rejects the strong claim that ignorance of all things is bliss. However, if the paradox of choice is that it may debilitate and tyrannize, as Schwartz suggests it does in some instances, then increasing one’s awareness of choices must be at times undesirable. In pointing out “[t]he fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better”[23] Schwartz establishes a relationship between choice and ignorance – ignorance of all choice is clearly bad, but knowledge of every choice, especially when there are numerically many choices, can be tyrannical – that looks strikingly similar to our reformulation of the ignorance proposition: in some contexts ignorance (e.g. of choice) may indeed be blissful.

Schwartz also offers philosophical and empirical arguments that describe how individuals can become burdened with what he terms “the responsibility of choice.”[24] While Schwartz tends toward advocating improved management of choices and options, as opposed to willful ignorance of available choices, his thesis is clear: there are some individuals for whom an increase in knowledge, especially when presented in the form of increased choice, corresponds to a decrease in general satisfaction and happiness.[25], [26]

Beginning with Pascal’s wager and ending with Schwartz’s discussion of the tyranny of choice we now have a body of examples in which a belief held in ignorance of the truth is justified using a pragmatic, as opposed to epistemic, rationale. These beliefs, Pascal’s belief in the existence of God, Ender’s belief he was merely participating in a simulation, the terminal patient’s belief she has only a benign tumor, or the consumer’s belief that she has only two brands to choose from, all stand apart from truth and knowledge in some important respect. Nevertheless, each of these beliefs is defended on pragmatic grounds and it is up to the advocates of the epistemic justification for belief to overcome these arguments.

2. Epistemic Reasons for Belief

An epistemic justification for belief is distinguished by its “reference to epistemic aims, these being truth, avoidance of error, perhaps explanatory and predictive power and perhaps more.”[27] The argument in favor of epistemic justification is derived from the desire to justify our beliefs not on the basis of their instrumental value but on the basis of their relationship to truth and to knowledge.

An intriguing question, posed by Laurence Bonjour in his work The Structure of Empirical Knowledge,[28] is why we “…as cognitive beings, care whether our beliefs are epistemically justified?”[29] Bonjour considers epistemic justification as an alternative to prudential justification for belief and declares that “…the goal of our distinctively cognitive endeavors is truth: we want our beliefs to correctly and accurately depict the world.”[30] It must be observed that in this claim Bonjour implicitly distinguishes between our endeavors qua human beings and our “distinctly cognitive endeavors.” Accepting Bonjour’s claim that appropriately chosen standards of epistemic justification tend to bring about true beliefs[31] then, to the extent that we value cognitive endeavors over other types of human endeavors, epistemically justified beliefs are preferred. With respect to our cognitive endeavors prudential justification will not be “…the right kind to satisfy the requirement for knowledge.”[32]

In support of this claim Bonjour raises the problem of epistemic irresponsibility[33] and contends that “part of one’s epistemic duty is to reflect critically upon one’s beliefs, and such critical reflection precludes believing things to which one has, to one’s knowledge, no reliable means of epistemic access;” failure to do so is “…epistemically irrational and irresponsible, and thereby unjustified.”[34] This requirement to avoid epistemic irresponsibility sounds a similar chord to my first formulation of the Socratic method –to engage in self-reflection and examination of my fundamental beliefs – with the added requirement that the determination of which beliefs to revise or discard must be made from a purely epistemic perspective. It is also clear that this formulation of epistemic justification rejects Pascal’s wager insofar as the belief in God is one Pascal admits will never be epistemically affirmed.[35]

But what does epistemic responsibility demand in the other scenarios, considered above, in which a prudential justification for belief is employed? At least with respect to those scenarios where the ignorance is of a voluntary nature Bonjour is quite clear. There is, he says, “something epistemically reprehensible about such a choice: the person chooses to delude himself, or rather to bring it about that he is deluded, and such a choice is a clear example of epistemic irresponsibility.”[36]

Given my own predisposition to reject the value of ignorance I am sympathetic with Bonjour’s characterization of such behavior as epistemically irresponsible. Still, I can’t help but notice that this critique of prudentially justified beliefs hinges on its own form of prudential justification. That is to say, if I ascribe any value at all to knowledge or truth then the pursuit of an epistemic justification, provided it can be done without any corresponding decrease in the fulfillment of my other goals, is a no-brainer. However, the much more difficult test for Bonjour and epistemic justification is to show how this scheme triumphs in the scenario where pursuing truth and attempting to produce an epistemic justification for my belief results in a diminished ability to satisfy my various other, non-cognitive human endeavors. In such a scenario it is not enough that I attach some value to truth – if I persist in my pursuit of an epistemic justification then I must necessarily ascribe more value to truth than to happiness, bliss, or any of my other goals. For the theory of epistemic justification to universally prevail over that of prudential justification, the cognitive endeavors of human beings must be assigned primacy of place relative to all other articulable human goals.

One possible response to this objection, and indeed the response I have always given, is that as a matter of principle it is always better to know than not to know. By this I could reasonably mean one of two things: either 1) it is better to know now, and not to be ignorant, because in the long run that will make me happier or 2) it is better to know than to be ignorant, irregardless of the impact that knowing the truth will have on my net happiness. The former claim clearly does no work in support of an epistemic justification because it depicts truth not as an end itself but as means to a higher goal, namely happiness. The second formulation is one that Bonjour implicitly supports, but notice what it entails. To say, as Bonjour does, that utilizing any non-epistemic justification for belief leaves “…no reason for a person whose goal is truth to accept beliefs according to its dictates”[37] ignores the obvious rejoinder that not everyone’s primary goal is truth. All that I can claim in asserting that I would rather know than not know, irrespective of how that impacts my happiness, is that I prize truth more highly than I prize happiness; that my primary goal is a cognitive one. The possibility can not be denied that another individual, while seeking truth in her cognitive endeavors, may nevertheless pursue her more fundamental goal of blissfulness or happiness or anything else at all. And if that is the case then prudentially justified beliefs may well be epistemically irresponsible and, nevertheless, fully rational.

It would seem, then, that the only way out of this dilemma set against an epistemic justification for belief is to demonstrate that human beings have a duty to make the pursuit of truth and knowledge their principal human endeavor. If, the argument goes, it is irrational or immoral to principally aspire to any goal other than the cognitive one then the objection to the epistemic justification is thereby quelled. Everyone’s primary endeavor either is, or should be, the cognitive one. Though arguments of this kind have been made this debate is one about which it is accurate, and sufficient for our purposes, to say that reasonable minds will disagree.[38]

In concluding the discussion of the merits of an epistemic justification for belief I do not contend that the theory has no purchase whatsoever. Even while it awaits the arrival of a irrefutable, winning argument to affirm the primacy of truth and the cognitive endeavor over all other human endeavors, there are still individuals that nevertheless accept the claim and thus pursue epistemically justified beliefs and reject beliefs held in willful ignorance of the truth.[39] Equally, however, there are individuals who ascribe greater value to some other human endeavor apart from the cognitive one of pursuing truth and, at least for them, a prudentially justified belief may not only be acceptable it may frequently be desirable. Perhaps, then, it was to this cohort of individuals to which Thomas Gray was referring when he penned his memorable lines: “Thought would destroy their paradise! / No more; where ignorance is bliss....”[40] When appropriately restricted in its meaning and considered in context the claim that ignorance is bliss can no longer be characterized as irredeemably illogical and repugnant.



[1] Thomas Gray. Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College. London: R. Dodsley, 1747. Lines 98-100.

[2] Plato. Complete Works. Cooper, John M. ed. Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Company, Inc. 1997. Apology, 38a.

[3] Plato. Apology, 38a.

[4] The conclusion ~ P is, of course, not logically compelled. We could choose to revise our other premise (A) instead of rejecting the supposition that ignorance of all things is bliss. However if either A or P must be rejected P clearly seems to be the more sensible candidate for refusal.

[5] Admittedly these are not the only two justificatory schemes for belief though they are the only two that will be extensively considered within the scope of this discussion.

[6] Pascal, Blaise. Pascal’s Pensées. Turnell, M., translator. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers. 1962. Pages 200-205.

[7] Id., 201.

[8] Id., 202-203: “I am forced to gamble and am not free; they will not let go of me.”

[9] Id., 202.

[10] Id.

[11] Id., 203.

[12] Id.

[13] See Id., 201.

[14] Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game. New York: Tor Books. 1994. Card’s science fiction novel, originally published as a short story, won the Hugo Award in 1985 and the Nebula Award in 1986, both for best novel.

[15] For a more thorough overview of these questions see Chadwick, Ruth., “The philosophy of the right to know and the right not to know.” In The right to know and the right not to know. Chadwick, R. et. al. eds. Aldershot: Avebury. 1997.

[16] The debate over the right not to know, long-standing in medical ethics and recently renewed in the context of genetic ethics, is a fascinatingly complex discussion that deserves (and has certainly received) a forum all its own. My only hope here is that I have provided the necessary skeletal framework to allow an unfamiliar reader to conclude that the beliefs produced by exercising the right not to know are beliefs supported by a prudential, and not epistemic, justification.

[17] Pascal, 201.

[18] James, William. “The Will to Believe.” In Pragmatism and Other Writings. East Rutherford, NJ: Penguin Press. 2002. Page 205.

[19] I must make what James refers to as a “passional decision” which is to be contrasted with a belief “decided on intellectual grounds.” (James, 205).

[20] Here I am considering the individual who exercises her right not to know but need only submit a signed form authorizing the release of her personal data to waive that right. The individual is also aware that she may waive this right and choose to know and, thus, knowledge is available to her with an absolute minimum of effort.

[21] Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. New York: Harper Collins. 2004.

[22] Id., 2.

[23] Id., 3.

[24] Id., 42.

[25] In particular Schwartz distinguishes between “maximizers” and “satisficers” (Schwartz, 79-81) and argues that the “proliferation of options not only makes people who are maximizers miserable, but it may also make people who are satisficers into maximizers.”(96).

[26] At this stage I must point out a broad and crucial supposition that this argument employs. I will assume, but not defend, the claim that bliss is roughly equivalent to an intense state of pleasure. What follows from this is that any increase in bliss will result in a corresponding increase in pleasure, and vice versa.

While I do not intend to suggest that happiness and pleasure perfectly coincide I assert that the basic thrust and commonly accepted meaning of bliss is one which is roughly equated to something close to happiness. The concepts of happiness, pleasure, and bliss are sufficiently related that for the purposes of this paper they can be used almost interchangeably, without delving into any of the nice distinctions between these terms. The argument that I am advancing with respect to bliss – that certain ignorance is bliss in some contexts – is one that can be effectively made without worrying overmuch about whether bliss translates precisely into happiness, intense pleasure, or some other term with a slightly varied technical or philosophical meaning but with the same commonly accepted connotation.

[27] Oakley, I. T. “Skepticism and the Diversity of Epistemic Justification.” Philosophical Quarterly 38 (1988): 263-279. Page 274.

[28] Bonjour, Laurence. The Structure of Empirical Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1985.

[29] Id., 7.

[30] Id.

[31] Id., 8. The principle aim of Bonjour’s work is to justify this claim; to produce a “metajustification for [empirical belief] by showing the proposed standards to be adequately truth-conducive…that adopting those standards is a reasonable means for reaching the main cognitive goal.” (9). For the purposes of our discussion this claim, and Bonjour’s argument in support of it, will simply be accepted. The problem that I raise in this section is not that standards of epistemic justification are not truth-conducive but that, even if they are, the argument in favor of epistemic justification of belief does not address why it is the cognitive endeavor, namely the pursuit of truth, that is the most appropriate pursuit for a human being.

[32] Id., 7.

[33] “To accept a belief in the absence of [epistemic justification], however appealing or even mandatory such acceptance might be from some other standpoint, is to neglect the pursuit of truth; such acceptance is, one might say, epistemically irresponsible”(Bonjour, 8).

[34] Id., 42.

[35] Pascal, 201.

[36] Bonjour, 151.

[37] Id., 157.

[38] This is not a debate that I can fully engage in, let alone hope to resolve, within the scope of this examination. However, I do wish to briefly note one key argument that must be overcome by anyone who wishes to argue that truth is necessarily a higher goal than happiness, bliss, or any other goal. To do so one must first answer the skeptical claim that denies the possibility of knowledge (the weak skeptical position) or even of true belief (the strong skeptical position). That is not a claim that I am prepared to answer here nor is it a challenge that, to the best of my knowledge, has ever been fully met. Thus, the most appropriate course of action seems to me to be to point out the lack of resolution in this debate and to see what follows from this.

[39] At least one possible exception to this is the situation in which epistemic justification is impossible or currently inaccessible. In these cases, of which Pascal’s wager is an excellent example, where a belief must be held one way or another and no epistemic justification can be had, there is no choice but to but to accept a prudential justification for my belief if I want it to be justified on any grounds whatsoever. This, I contend, is the argument that William James makes in his essay “The Will to Believe” (see Footnotes 20, 21) and, while compelling, it is not strictly applicable here because this paper is primarily concerned with ignorance when it is a function of choice, and not the result of necessity or circumstance.

[40] Gray, lines 98-100. Emphasis added.