Saturday, March 28, 2009

Can't They See the Contradiction?

Tibor R. Machan

In the March 28, 2009, issue of Science News there is a story on physically shrinking fish. Presumably because fishing often involves keeping large fish but throwing back small ones, there is evidence from close observation that development is headed toward smaller sized fish. The story also suggests that those doing the fishing could act differently from how they do, namely, change their practice of throwing back only small fish. Since they fail to do so, a slow reversal of the effects of such fishing may need to be induced.

The puzzle here is that on the one hand we have evolutionary forces in play but on the other we do not. So fisheries biologists can--and may need to--counter evolutionary forces. And that suggests that evolutionary forces aren't ubiquitous but operate selectively. How can that be? And if it can happen vis-a-vis fish, where else might it happen?

In addition to this puzzle there is another one, specific to the editorial stance of Science News itself. Some issues back Tom Siegfried, Science News's editor, wrote an essay in which he said that free will is an illusion (albeit one with some kind of evolutionary function). That is to say that while human beings do not have free will, they cannot make basic choices as to how they will conduct themselves, evolution has produced for them the conviction that they do. Never mind that this impugns the effectiveness of evolutionary forces since evidently Mr. Sigfried was able to go against the belief that evolution supposedly created. He, after all, by his own testimony does not believe in free will! Neither do thousands of others, especially in the community of biologists (though there are some exceptions, especially among evolutionary biologists). Quite apart from that puzzle, there is also the one about how one can implore those doing the fishing to do better at what they are doing, namely, preserving fish populations while they are also said to be incapable of choosing their conduct, including how they do their fishing.

The famous 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, along with some others, spelled out the preconditions of intelligibly ascribing moral and other responsibilities to someone. He coined the motto, "'ought' implies 'can'," which means that if someone ought to or should do something or refrain from doing it, it must be the case that he or she is free to choose whether to do it. Saying that A ought to do x makes no sense if A has no choice about doing x.

Science News appears to have fallen prey to the contradiction of both claiming people lack free will and that they ought to act differently from how they do. This is not only so when it comes to some of the practices of those doing fishing. It also applies to when Science News chides a given government administration for failing to be friendly to the sciences or praises another for being friendly to them. To spell it out, if all politicians and their constituents are incapable of making choices about their conduct, including what public policies they will support and enact, then holding them responsible for failing to be friendly to the sciences is entirely moot. If free will is, as Science News editor Siegfried argued, an illusions, then the idea that fishing might be done differently from how it is being done or that people should be giving better support to the sciences just makes no sense.

Maybe this all a problem of hubris. Maybe Mr. Siegfried and Co., just cannot fathom that they need to reflect on matters a bit more deeply then they do, that they may need to see if their position on some issues can be reconciled with those on others. If you are going to engage in moral criticism or praise, then it is best not to sound off against the very preconditions of such criticism or praise. Either it is all qué será, será or people can indeed make better choices about their conduct than what Science News disapproves of.