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. Siegfried 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 is 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.