A Philosopher's Blog

Dating II: Are Relationships Worth It?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on August 10, 2016

My long term, long-distance relationship recently came to an amicable end, thus tossing me back into the world of dating. Philosophers, of course, have two standard responses to problems: thinking or drinking. Since I am not much for drinking, I have been thinking about relationships.

Since starting and maintaining a relationship is a great deal of work (and if it is not, you are either lucky or doing it wrong), I think it is important to consider whether relationships are worth it. One obvious consideration is the fact that the vast majority of romantic relationships end well before death.  Even marriage, which is supposed to be the most solid of relationships, tends to end in divorce.

While there are many ways to look at the ending of a relationship, I think there are two main approaches. One is to consider the end of the relationship a failure. One obvious analogy is to writing a book and not finishing: all that work poured into it, yet it remains incomplete. Another obvious analogy is with running a marathon that one does not finish—great effort expended, but in the end just failure. Another approach is to consider the ending more positively: the relationship ended, but was completed. Going back to the analogies, it is like completing that book you are writing or finishing that marathon. True, it has ended—but it is supposed to end.

When my relationship ended, I initially looked at it as a failure—all that effort invested and it just came to an end one day because, despite two years of trying, we could not land academic jobs in the same geographical area. However, I am endeavoring to look at in a more positive light—although I would have preferred that it did not end, it was a very positive relationship, rich with wonderful experiences and helped me to become better as a human being. There still, of course, remains the question of whether or not it is worth being in another relationship.

One approach to address this is the ever-popular context of biology and evolution. Humans are animals that need food, water and air to survive. As such, there is no real question about whether food, water and air are worth it—one is simply driven to possess them. Likewise, humans are driven by their biology to reproduce and natural selection seems to have selected for genes that mold brains to engage in relationships. As such, there is no real question of whether they are worth it, humans merely do have relationships. This answer is, of course, rather unsatisfying since a person can, it would seem, make the choice to be in a relationship or not. There is also the question of whether relationships are, in fact, worth it—this is a question of value and science is not the realm where such answers lie. Value questions belong to such areas as moral philosophy and aesthetics. So, on to value.

The question of whether relationships are worth it or not is rather like asking whether technology is worth it or not: the question is extremely broad. While some might endeavor to give sweeping answers to these broad questions, such an approach would seem problematic and unsatisfying. Just as it makes sense to be more specific about technology (such as asking if nuclear power is worth the risk), it makes more sense to consider whether a specific relationship is worth it. That is, there seems to be no general answer to the question of whether relationships are worth it or not, it is a question of whether a specific relationship would be worth it.

It could be countered that there is, in fact, a legitimate general question. A person might regard any likely relationship to not be worth it. For example, I know several professionals who have devoted their lives to their careers and have no interest in relationships—they do not consider a romantic involvement with another human being to have much, if any value. A person might also regard a relationship as a necessary part of their well-being. While this might be due to social conditioning or biology, there are certainly people who consider almost any relationship worth it.

These counters are quite reasonable, but it can be argued that the general question is best answered by considering specific relationships. If no specific possible (or likely) relationship for a person would be worth it, then relationships in general would not be worth it. So, if a person honestly considered all the relationships she might have and rejected all of them because their value is not sufficient, then relationships would not be worth it to her. As noted above, some people take this view.

If at least some possible (or likely) relationships would be worth it to a person, then relationships would thus be worth it. This leads to what is an obvious point: the worth of a relationship depends on that specific relationship, so it comes down to weighing the negative and positive aspects. If there is a sufficient surplus of positive over the negative, then the relationship would be worth it. As should be expected, there are many serious epistemic problems here. How does a person know what would be positive or negative? How does a person know that a relationship with a specific person would be more positive or more negative? How does a person know what they should do to make the relationship more positive than negative? How does a person know how much the positive needs to outweigh the negative to make the relationship worth it? And, of course, many more concerns. Given the challenge of answering these questions, it is no wonder that so many relationships fail. There is also the fact that each person has a different answer to many of these questions, so getting answers from others will tend to be of little real value and could lead to problems. As such, I am reluctant to answer them for others; especially since I cannot yet answer them for myself.


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Why is the Universe the Way it Is?

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on April 30, 2014
Galaxies are so large that stars can be consid...

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One of the fundamental questions shared by science, philosophy and theology is the question of why the universe is the way it is. Over the centuries, the answers have fallen into two broad camps. The first is that of teleology. This is the view that the universe is the way it is because it has a purpose, goal or end for which it aims. The second is the non-teleological camp, which is the denial of the teleological view. Members of this camp often embrace purposeless chance as the “reason” why things are as they are.

Both camps agree on many basic matters, such as the view that the universe seems to be finely tuned. Theorists vary a bit in their views on what a less finely tuned universe would be like. On some views, the universe would just be slightly different while on other views small differences would have significant results, such as an uninhabitable universe. Because of this apparent fine tuning, one main concern for philosophers and physicists is explaining why this is the case.

The dispute over this large question nicely mirrors the dispute over a smaller question, namely the question about why living creatures are the way they are. The division into camps follows the same pattern. On one side is the broad camp inhabited by those who embrace teleology and the other side dwell those who reject it. Interestingly, it might be possible to have different types of answers to these questions. For example, the universe could have been created by a deity (a teleological universe) who decides to let natural selection rather than design sort out life forms (non-teleological). That said, the smaller question does provide some interesting ways to answer the larger question.

As noted above, the teleological camp is very broad. In the United States, perhaps the best known form of teleology is Christian creationism. This view answers the large and the small question with God: He created the universe and the inhabitants. There are many other religious teleological views—the creation stories of various other cultures and faiths are examples of these. There are also non-religious views. Among these, probably the best known are those of Plato and Aristotle. For Plato, roughly put, the universe is the way it is because of the Forms (and behind them all is the Good). Aristotle does not put any god in charge of the universe, but he regarded reality as eminently teleological. Views that posit laws governing reality also seem, to some, to be within the teleological camp. As such, the main divisions in the teleological camp tends to be between the religious theories and the non-religious theories.

Obviously enough, teleological accounts have largely fallen out of favor in the sciences—the big switch took place during the Modern era as philosophy and science transitioned away from Aristotle (and Plato) towards a more mechanistic and materialistic view of reality.

The non-teleological camp is at least as varied as the teleological camp and as old. The pre-Socratic Greek philosophers considered the matter of what would now be called natural selection and the idea of a chance-based, purposeless universe is ancient.

One non-teleological way to answer the question of why the universe is the way it is would be to take an approach similar to Spinoza, only without God. This would be to claim that the universe is what it is as a matter of necessity: it could not be any different from what it is. However, this might be seen as unsatisfactory since one can easily ask about why it is necessarily the way it is.

The opposite approach is to reject necessity and embrace a random universe—it was just pure chance that the universe turned out as it did and things could have been very different. So, the answer to the question of why the universe is the way it is would be blind chance. The universe plays dice with itself.

Another approach is to take the view that the universe is the way it is and finely tuned because it has “settled” down into what seems to be a fine-tuned state. Crudely put, the universe worked things out without any guidance or purpose. To use an analogy, think of sticks and debris washed by a flood to form a stable “structure.” The universe could be like that—where the flood is the big bang or whatever got it going.

One variant on this would be to claim that the universe contains distinct zones—the zone we are in happened to be “naturally selected” to be stable and hospitable to life. Other zones could be rather different—perhaps so different that they are beyond our epistemic abilities. Or perhaps these zones “died” thus allowing an interesting possibility for fiction about the ghosts of dead zones haunting the cosmic night. Perhaps the fossils of dead universes drift around us, awaiting their discovery.

Another option is to expand things from there being just one universe to a multiverse. This allows a rather close comparison to natural selection: in place of a multitude of species, there is a multitude of universes. Some “survive” the selection while others do not. Just as we are supposed to be a species that has so far survived the natural selection of evolution, we live in a universe that has so far survived cosmic selection. If the model of evolution and natural selection is intellectually satisfying in biology, it would seem reasonable to accept cosmic selection as also being intellectually satisfying—although it will be radically different from natural selection in many obvious ways.


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Being a Man V: Birds & Bees

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 18, 2010
Male Scarlet Robin (Petroica boodang) in the M...
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After reading an article in National Geographic about orchids and evolution, the idea struck me that it makes sense to look at being a man in the context of evolutionary theory. In the case of the orchid article, the idea was that the amazing adaptations of orchids (for example, imitating female insects so as to attract pollinators) can all be explained in terms of natural selection. While humans have a broader range of behavior than orchids, the same principle would seem to apply.

Crudely and simply put, the theory is that organisms experience random mutations and these are selected for (or against) by natural processes. Organisms that survive and reproduce pass on their genes (including the mutations). Those that do not reproduce, do not pass on their genes. Over time, this process of selection  can result in significant changes in a species or even the creation of new species. While there are no purposes or goals in this “system”, it can create the appearance of design: organisms that survive will be well suited to the conditions in which they live. This is, of course, not design-if they did not fit, they would not survive to be there.

Getting back to being a man, evolution has shaped men via this process of natural selection. As such, the men who are here now are descended from men who had qualities that contributed to their surviving and reproducing. These men will, in turn, go through the natural selection process. In the case of humans, the process is often more complicated than that of birds, bees and orchids. However, as noted above, the basic idea is the same.  The “men” of the non-human species have  a set of behaviors that define this role. In most cases, the majority of these behaviors (nest building, fighting, displaying, and so on) are instinctual. In the case of humans, some of the behavior is probably hard-wired, but much of it is learned behavior. However, if one buys into evolutionary theory, what lies behind all this is the process of evolution. As such, being a man would simply be an evolutionary “strategy” that arose out of the process of natural selection. As such, being a man is on par with being a drake, a bull or a steer.  That is, it involves being in a gender role that is typically occupied by biological males.

Of course, this does not help a great deal in deciding how one should act if one wants to be a man in a meaningful sense. But, evolution is not about what one ought to do. It is simply about what is: survive and be selected, or fail and be rejected. That said, looking at comparable roles in the animal kingdom as well as considering the matter of evolution (and biology) might prove useful in looking at the matter scientifically.

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Can ID Be Science? A Short Argument.

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion, Science by Michael LaBossiere on March 17, 2008

The debate about whether intelligent design (ID) can be science or not is still ongoing. In order to address this problem, a non-question begging account of science is required.

In some debates, I have seen science defined in terms of involving only naturalistic explanations. If this definition is accepted, then the usual suspects in the case of ID can be dismissed by definition. For example,  if God is supposed to be the designer and God is supernatural, then this falls outside the realm of science. QED.

Of course this approach has two main weak points. First, the door is still open to natural designers. As such a form of ID involving a non-supernatural agency would still be (potentially) scientific. Second, to say that ID is not scientific based on this definition is not a substantial criticism of ID. It would, in fact, beg the question. It would be somewhat like saying that French literature is not literature, because literature must be written in English. If this were accepted, then French literature would not be literature-but only by definition and not on any substantial ground.

It could be replied that science is by its very nature concerned solely with natural phenomenon. This reply would, of course, ignore a substantial part of the history of science (such as Newton) but can be granted as a viable approach for the sake of argument. One might, for example argue that just as math deals with mathematical matter and literature deals with literary matters, science deals with natural matters. Supernatural matters belong to philosophy and religion.

In this case, most (but not all) forms of ID would be non-scientific. But, the obvious reply is that ID is being dismissed as non-scientific by fiat and (once again) by mere definition. It would, one might say, be more honest to say that supernatural ID theories are not part of the natural sciences. This is perfectly reasonable. So, one might ask, why not stop the discussion now and simply accept that ID is not scientific?

The obvious reply is that the classification of ID as non-scientific is more than just a matter of saying that supernatural theories do not fall under the natural sciences. Rather, to tar ID as unscientific is often an attack on such theories. The idea is not to say that they belong in a different field (as one might say that the matter of ethics belongs in philosophy and not chemistry) but that ID theories are somehow defective and perhaps even fundamentally irrational.

An obvious reply to this is to point out that some ID theories are irrational and unscientific in the most negative sense of the terms. This is true, but does not seem to warrant dismissing all ID theories as being unscientific in this highly negative sense.

Perhaps there is a more substantial way to assess whether ID can be considered scientific or not-without begging the question by simply relying on the fact that supernatural ID theories are, by definition, not natural theories.

One hallmark of scientific (and philosophical) reasoning is that a claim or theory is subject to rational evaluation and, most critically, testing. If a claim or theory cannot be tested, then it cannot be considered a scientific claim or hypothesis. Naturally, a claim might be beyond our means to test now (like a claim about the nature of the interior of a black hole or about the composition of Dark Matter) but as long as it is testable, then it can be considered scientific (to some degree-obviously I am cutting numerous corners here for the sake of brevity).

So, can ID theories and claims be tested? If a claim or theory is such that it cannot be tested, then the obvious answer is no. To use a rather absurd example, imagine that someone claimed God zapped the life, the universe and everything into existence 4,000 years ago. Further, God made it so that the universe seems much older to all possible tests-this is why scientists mistakenly think the universe is older. Obviously, this view cannot be tested in an meaningful sense (though it might be true). But this does not mean that no ID theory can be tested.

If someone claims that living creatures are the product of intelligent design, because of the evidence of complexity, then this can be tested. The test would be (to put it simply) to determine if the complexity of living  creatures can result from something other than an intelligent designer. To the degree that such an alternative (or alternatives) is established, the hypothesis of the designer has been dis-proven. To the degree that the complexity can only be accounted for in terms of design, the hypothesis is supported. This certainly seems to be properly scientific.

At this time, the natural selection hypothesis seems to have the upper hand. It has been claimed that the complexity of living creatures can be explained in terms of a random process (one not guided by a designer) and a selection mechanism (natural and opposed to intelligent) selection. As such, by Occam’s razor, there is no reason to bring in an intelligent designer.

So, it could be reasonably held that ID can be scientific. It just so happens that the consensus in science today is that it is an implausible theory.

So, what about teaching ID in schools? That is a matter for another time.

ID vs Natural Selection

Posted in Metaphysics, Religion, Science by Michael LaBossiere on March 16, 2008

The natural selection vs. “creationism” debate has led to Ben Stein creating a film about the matter. The film was shown in Tallahassee recently and was not a great success. I suspect that part of the problem was the apparent lack of advertising-I had no idea the film was even here until after the fact.

But, this shows that matter is still of some concern.

The debate is often muddled by the fact that people (on various sides) lump together all the forms of intelligent design with creationism (and often the most absurd form of creationism).

The more interesting conflict is between the foundation of the two main views. To be specific:

Natural selection: there is no intelligent or purposeful guide to the universe. Complex organisms arise from a process in which those that survive reproduce and pass on traits. Organisms that do not survive to breed do not (obviously enough) pass on traits. This selection process results in the evolution of complex organisms that seem designed but are, in fact, the result of a random process and a selection mechanism. This idea actually originated with the Ionian philosopher Anaximander but was best presented by Darwin.

Intelligent Design/Teleological Approach: There is an intelligent guide or purpose to the universe. The ID view is that an actual mind (or minds) guided the development of organisms. Naturally enough, this view is most often put forth by religious thinkers. However, it can also be presented without a religious angle. Aquinas, Locke, Leibniz and others present excellent arguments in favor of this view. The teleological view is that the universe has a purpose or goal and that living creatures also have an end or purpose that guides them. On this view the process of evolution would not be due to random factors and a natural selection process. Rather, the process would be goal oriented. This need not involve a mind (like God) guiding the process. For example, Aristotle took this view and some take Taoism to also include this approach.

In the public battles, people tend to stab vigorously at straw men-they attack the worst, simplest and most absurd version they can find or create. While this affords a certain degree of amusement, it is intellectually dishonest.

I have argued elsewhere (my book will be out in May) that a teleological account fits a non-question begging definition of science. At this point, the teleological approach seems to be behind the natural selection approach based on the empirical evidence, theoretical economy and such. But it can be considered a proper hypothesis.

To forestall some attacks-I don’t defend simplistic creationism. I don’t defend the pop view of evolution. I consider the matter of the nature of the universe to still be an open matter. One thing that science and philosophy teach us is to be wary of dogmatism. That is one of the most savage enemies of truth and wisdom.

Is God Compatible with Evolution?

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 18, 2007


While the theory of evolution is considered as a matter of established scientific fact, there is still very significant opposition to the theory from the religious community. The main concern is that the theory of evolution is a threat to faith and religious belief. Some thinkers content that religious belief is compatible with evolution-that a person can have science and God. It is to this matter that I know turn.



Addressing this matter requires being clear about what exactly is being debated. If the theory of evolution is taken to involve the claim that there is no God, then obviously God and the theory are not compatible. While this is a commonly held view, the theory does not actually explicitly deny the existence of God. What is does is postulate a mechanism of natural selection in place of an intelligent designer. So, rather than having an intelligent being design and create life forms, new life forms emerge through mutations and selection in terms of survival and reproduction. Mutations that survive and breed can eventually differ enough from the original species that they become a new species. As odd as it might seem, natural selection seems initially compatible with the existence of God.



God could have created the universe and put in place the method of natural selection as the means by which new life forms would arise from older ones. So, rather than designing each life form in hands on acts of creation, God would set the universe up so that a natural mechanism of selection did the work for Him. This sort of view is not without precedent. Many thinkers have argued that God created a world of laws and natural machinery that run without his direct intervention. The best known version of this view is deism.


Of course, there is the question of why God would use such a method and whether it is compatible with His other alleged traits.



God is, in Philosophy 101 terms, supposed to be all good, all powerful and all knowing. These attributes do seem to clash with using natural selection. First, if God is all powerful and all knowing, He could simply create the life forms He wants and not have to rely on a mechanism to do the work for him. An obvious reply to this is, however, to re-emphasis the view that God is the divine watchmaker who builds a world that can run on its own. Of course, many religious thinkers, such as Berkeley, regard this view as unacceptable. After all, if laws and mechanisms do all the work, what need is there for God? In any case, this does rekindle the old debate over the degree of God’s involvement in the world.



Second, if God is all good, then natural selection seems incompatible with God. This is so for two main reasons. The first reason is that natural selection seems to be terribly wasteful and brutal. It seems almost inconceivable that an all good being would allow so many species to simply perish. The second reason is that natural selection seems arbitrary. It is, after all, a chance driven mechanism. To leave survival up to chance hardly seems like the action of a perfectly good being.


Of course, this sort of problem is really nothing new-it is but the problem of evil with the twist of natural selection added in for a different flavor.



Thus, the logical conclusion seems to be that God is compatible with evolution, but serious problems arise with reconciling God with the nature of natural selection.