Wittgenstein: How to Change the World

Later, they were joined in these musical sessions by a local coal-miner called Heinrich Postl, a member of the village choir. Postl, who became a good friend and a kind of protégé of Wittgenstein’s, was later employed as a porter and caretaker by the Wittgenstein family. Wittgenstein gave him copies of some of his favourite books – Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief and Hebel’s Schatzkästlein – and sought to impress upon him his own moral teaching. Thus, when Postl once remarked that he wished to improve the world, Wittgenstein replied: ‘Just improve yourself; that is the only thing you can do to better the world.’

Source: Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Vintage, 1991), p. 213.

Trinity and Virtue

The Cardinal Virtues are Moral Insight (φρόνησις), Courage, Self-control or Temperance, and Justice. These virtues stand or fall together, in the sense that he who possesses one possesses all. Zeno found the common source of all virtues in φρόνησις, while for Cleanthes it was self-mastery…

Source: Frederick Copleston. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. 2nd ed. Westminster: The Newman Press. 1950. p. 397.

The above passage about Stoic theories of virtue provides a glimpse of how the unity of the virtues, used by theologians as one analogy among many for understanding the Trinity, can be especially useful to this end. Note the discussion of which virtue is the source of the other virtues. This seems to provide a very good way of understanding how one of the Persons of the Trinity is the source of the others while yet they are still all one. I wonder if any theologians caught onto this. St. Augustine doesn’t seem to (thanks to Brandon for the Augustine citation). If I had read more of the Fathers, I could give a conclusive answer to this, but as it stands now I don’t know.

The Fetus and Science

Recently on Twitter a good deal of criticism was hurled at The Atlantic for publishing an article that was originally entitled “how the ultrasound pushed the idea that a fetus is a person.” The headline was later changed to “The Politics of Ultrasound.”

Twitter also recently brought to my attention another article, by Suzanne Sadedin, titled “War in the womb”. It attempts to portray the fetal-maternal relationship as a battle between mother and child. Relying on David Haig’s parental conflict hypothesis, the author states that the infant’s “genome would evolve to manipulate your mother into providing more resources for you. In turn, her genes would manoeuvre to provide you with fewer resources. The situation becomes a tug-of-war.” According to the article, the idea is that it is in the father’s best interest to have the embryo take as much from the mother as possible (since that may be his only child with her), whereas the mother has to counteract this for the benefit of her own survival. The result is mother-child warfare: “control of the circulation overridden, arteries jammed wide-open, blood pressure forced into overdrive,” according to the summary in this article by Sophie Lewis, a reproductive rights proponent.

One major problem with this argument is that it misunderstands the parental conflict hypothesis by thinking it’s about a conflict between the fetus/father and the mother. As Haig himself has recently said, “Contrary to widespread belief, the theory defines conditions for cooperation as well as conflict in mother–offspring relations. Moreover, conflict between genes of maternal and paternal origin is not the same as conflict between mothers and fathers.” It makes little sense to say that the infant’s genes manipulate the mother into providing more resources; after all, half of the infant’s genes are taken from the mother! According to Haig’s theory, these maternally-derived fetal genes will actually prevent the fetus from taking too much from its mother.

In fact, understanding it as a conflict at all, except in a limited analogous sense, is dangerous. Imagine saying that insulin and glucagon are engaged in a war in the bloodstream, rather than simply describing their antagonistic effects as a negative feedback loop that acts for the good of the whole organism. This indicates a more fundamental flaw in the article: the attribution to body parts of motives normally attributed to people. It is conceptual confusion to say that a placenta greedily secretes hormones for its own growth, while the mother’s body has its own manipulations to defend itself. A placenta can’t be greedy, nor can a body manipulate anything: this would require a conscious intent which both lack. Such charged language tells us more about the cynicism of the writer than about the facts of development. Like with opposing hormones, it makes more sense to understand the conflict as two opposing forces that balance each other out for the good of mother and child. In fact, the rhetoric of the articles is so distorted that it could lead one to think that the mother makes no effort to help the embryo/fetus. This, of course, is false. The number of proteins that the mother has that act for the good of the infant is countless. Finally, more often than not, the mother – who, unlike her body parts, can have motives – loves her developing infant and wishes it the best.

Much more than the ultrasound, this makes a great example of how science can be politicized. Poor reasoning that would not be used elsewhere is only used regarding the fetus and mother because it makes a more interesting story, or perhaps since it easily lends support to a specific political movement.

Is Philosophy of Science Useful to Scientists?

I was intrigued to see this post from UofT biochemistry professor Laurence Moran’s blog Sandwalk. In some respects, sadly, Moran seems to be from the Jerry Coyne school of biochemistry, as he opens the article with:

I think philosophy has lost its way. The discipline gives credence to religious philosophers who write about god(s) and to other philosophers who reject determinism and think the mind-body problem is still an open question. Philosophers still debate the validity of the ontological argument. Philosophers of science have not even settled the question of what is science, let alone come up with a valid answer of how to do it. There are few other disciplines that are still respected after several hundred years of trying, and failing, to answer the most fundamental questions in their field…

However, he does seem to be better than Coyne in that he doesn’t think philosophy is totally off. In fact he supports the philosopher of science Elisabeth Lloyd’s contribution to understanding evolution by suggesting that biologists not favor natural selection to the exclusion of other mechanisms of evolution.

I think Moran is right to say that philosophers can advance science by making clarifications. Another good example is Hacker and Bennett in neuroscience. As their work demonstrates, scientific theories can be shown to be wrong, not by scrutinizing their empirical basis, but rather by a more fundamental attack on a conceptual error underlying the theory. To illustrate: it seems Moran thinks there is a lot to Francis Crick’s theory of the mind, given that he puts the following quote from Crick on another page of his: “The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cell and their associated molecules.” However, this is erroneous, not because the studies it relies on are necessarily flawed, but because it mistakenly assumes that just because there is a correlation between mental activity and certain brain activity, that the latter must be the real cause of the former. Another way a philosopher could show the error in this theory is by making the Aristotelian point that it tries to overthrows something supremely self-evident (that humans really exist) on the basis of something less self-evident (a materialistic interpretation of neurological studies). One can only pray that Moran reads their work and maybe gets a new perspective on the supposedly closed question of the mind-body problem.

Finally, I did think there was an interesting comment left on Moran’s blog post: “I often wonder if the mindset among some scientists who always look for adaptation is, in any way, related to the mindset among theists who seem to insist on seeing teleology in everything.” I’m not sure how characteristic this would be of ancient theists, though. Considering the prominence they gave to Aristotle, they would probably agree with him that some human features – such as eye color – do not have a specific purpose for the good of the organism. But of course God could have intended such things for the sake of some good, e.g., the beauty of diversity.

EDIT: I originally linked to the wrong page for the Crick quote.


  • Matthew Ramage’s new book Jesus, Interpreted is out. It seems to be the second in his series on reconciling modern biblical studies with the ancient faith through philosophical analysis. Based on his first book, Dark Passages of Scripture (primarily on violence in the OT), and what I’ve seen of Jesus, Interpreted on Google Books, it looks to be a great work.
  • A short but sweet abstract (in English) from a Hungarian article about hospitals in Byzantium: “Byzantine hospital rules guaranteed patients private beds, required physicians to wash their hands after each examination and arranged the physical plant to keep all the sick warm. The Byzantine hospitals had separate sections (in modern terms: surgery-trauma surgery, internal medicine, ophthalmology, etc.) and at the beginning of the sixth century a separate institution for women … By the twelfth century Byzantine hospitals also set aside a room or perhaps a separate building to treat outpatients.”
  • The feast of the patron saint of Serbia, Sava, was celebrated in Belgrade on January 27, with both Croatian Catholic and Serbian Orthodox hierarchs in attendance.
  • At the Josias, Pater Edmund Waldstein has written an article about the natural rights of immigrants. I’m happy that his argument gave some prominence to a passage from St. Ambrose. Sometimes Catholic political writings give the impression that Aquinas and the Popes are the only authorities, which is not a fair representation of the Western tradition.