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The philosopher John Messerly (author of the highly recommended book The Meaning of Life) recently asked if he could re-post and review the long essay I wrote that summed up What I Learned from 100 Philosophy Thought Experiments. I was delighted, of course, to hear his opinion on everything I wrote and was grateful for the extra attention I received from his own regular readers too. John (wisely) broke the review down into seven separate posts, and I thought I'd share his brief reflections on each one of them, as well as some of the back and forth we had in the comment section of his blog. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

What is a Worldview?
Overall Gibney’s careful and conscientious effort to summarize, categorize, and comment on all these thought experiments and place them in the larger context is a superb intellectual achievement.

[In a private note about this]
I really admire your effort to systemize a worldview. After all the classes taken and taught, and all the books read in an almost 50-year philosophy career, I have never really done that (with the exception of summarizing my meaning of life views). I also really like the idea of using thought experiments as a way to think about worldviews. Hopefully I'll spend some time over the next year looking at Baggini's book along with your commentary and come to my own conclusions, although I'll bet they'll be very similar to your own.

1. Epistemology
I agree with Gibney’s epistemological fallibilism/skepticism modified by the view of the provisional nature of all truth. I would only emphasize that this does not imply relativism, as the provisional truths of science are often supported by mountains of empirical evidence. The best a rational person can do, as Locke and Hume taught us, is proportion their assent to the evidence.

2. Logic
There is a lot here but I agree that as long as there is time, as long as there is a tomorrow, we cannot claim to know something definitively. Still, I’d argue that if we can enhance our intelligence, merge with AIs, create a global brain, become transhuman, etc., then there is a possibility of adjudicating our disputes with reason alone.

3. Metaphysics
Again so much substantive material here. As for personal identity, I think that Hume’s bundle theory and/or Buddhism’s idea of no-self is about right. Clearly, we just don’t have identity the way most of us imagine; if indeed we have any real self at all. And there almost certainly is no kernel that is us.
 
As for free will, I’m not sure what Mr. Gibney means by ”practically infinite free will” but I’m skeptical. I’m not a hard determinist, but I think that to say we are genomes in environments is a nearly exhaustive explanation of what we are. Still, we are not rocks, and free choice (which needs to be defined carefully but which is very, very limited) is something that emerged along with consciousness. That is, unlike rocks which are completely determined (let’s forget quantum theory for the moment), we have some deliberative faculties because we are conscious.
 
As for strong AI, I see no reason whatsoever why consciousness can’t exist on substrates other than our biological brains. In fact, in an infinite universe, consciousness may exist in almost limitless forms. Finally, I completely agree with Mr. Gibney on the interrelationship between reasons and emotions and that it is a moral imperative to improve our thinking. Quoting from Pascal: “Let us endeavour then to think well; this is the principle of morality.”
 
[In the comments on this post]
Me: Yeah, I’m not entirely sure what I meant by “practically infinite” either. : )
 
I find that the wording I use for the free will debate is still changing a bit for me. Lately, I’ve begun to think that it’s an unfalsifiable question since it would seemingly require two universes with beings in exactly the same positions making different choices to definitively prove something about determinism vs. free will. Without supernatural influences, souls, or dualistic minds not made of matter (things Dennett calls “skyhooks”), it’s difficult to refute the logic of determinism in a physicalist universe. However, the sheer amount of things determining those outcomes makes it nigh impossible to calculate them. That’s really what I mean by “practically infinite.” If we can’t calculate the determined outcome, it seems better to focus on the myriad of choices we do have and keep working to find the best influences from among them. There’s even some empirical evidence that this works better.
 
http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130924-how-belief-in-free-will-shapes-us
 
Ultimately though, I entirely agree with you that we are genomes in environments. I think that explains both the simplicity and the complexity of our existence.

John M: Yes, just such a difficult question. I act as if I have free will even though I might not.

4. Ethics
Traditional religious beliefs are mostly nonsense. Moreover, the divine command theory is ridiculous as Plato demonstrated in the Euthyphro, the problem of evil devastating for classical theism, there is no invisible gardener, etc.
 
I’ve never found much to recommend Kantian deontology, although I think a modified utilitarianism has a lot to offer. Like Mr. Gibney I think that evolutionary ethics explains the origins of ethics and can also function well as a normative ethical theory. I would modify Mr. Gibney’s “good is that which enables the long-term survival of life” by adding “and flourishing of life.” Survival isn’t sufficient by itself for goodness. (Note that Mr. Gibney seems to recognize this later on in the essay.)
 
I would also modify Mr. Gibney’s “1. Life is. 2. Life wants to survive. 3. Life ought to act to survive.” While I think you can get is from ought I don’t think you can get it quite that easily. (Perhaps Mr. Gibney is just summarizing here.) For example, Schopenhauer would argue that life wanting to survive is just a will to live that perpetuates suffering. So again we must enter the picture and choose to try to survive well, live well, or flourish.

[In the comments on this post]
Me: I thought I’d respond briefly to three things.
 
–> I would modify Mr. Gibney’s “good is that which enables the long-term survival of life” by adding “and flourishing of life.” Survival isn’t sufficient by itself for goodness. (Note that Mr. Gibney seems to recognize this later on in the essay.)
 
Yes, but I don’t modify this because I actually define flourishing and well-being as things that help to enhance the survival of life. If they didn’t do this, they wouldn’t be good and we could never encourage them since they would lead life towards extinction. To add “and flourishing” risks making it sound as if it's a separate thing. I’m getting better at saying this more explicitly in my latest presentations and papers. Life isn’t some on/off switch. To think so would be going back to visions of elan vital. So, just as life emerges and evolves slowly over evolutionary time, so does an ability to survive—from mere existence to lives with well-being and flourishing.
 
–> I would also modify Mr. Gibney’s “1. Life is. 2. Life wants to survive. 3. Life ought to act to survive.” While I think you can get is from ought I don’t think you can get it quite that easily. (Perhaps Mr. Gibney is just summarizing here.)
 
Well, we get from is to ought just this easily all the time with any conditional proposition. (In my paper, I note that *if* you want to get to Poughkeepsie, you *ought* to take the train there.) The difficult part is finding the conditional proposition that drives a universal and objective moral ought. That’s why I call this survival of life “the want that must.” And I do go into more detail on that in my other writings. But I still like the aphorism sometimes to get people talking.
 
–> For example, Schopenhauer would argue that life wanting to survive is just a will to live that perpetuates suffering. So again we must enter the picture and choose to try to survive well, live well, or flourish.
 
My answer to Schopenhauer is that perpetual suffering is exactly the evolutionary clue that you aren’t doing it right. By defining flourishing as living, I am saying much the same things as you, but I am placing the end consequence explicitly in the wording. By focusing simply on “flourishing”, utilitarians have left open the questions of whose, how much, and towards what end?
 
John M.: Ed – I like the way you consider flourishing as enhancing survival. That strikes me at first glance as plausible. We certainly do go from is to ought assuming we have some desire as in “if you want to become a lawyer, then you ought to go to law school.” Or “if you don’t want to get wet, then you ought to take your umbrella.” But of course, while Kant thinks there is a categorical imperative independent of our desires in addition to these hypothetical imperatives, Hume doesn’t think there are any categorical imperatives. So, as you note, that is the difficult part. To find exactly how to bridge the is/ought gap in ethics. The natural law theorists beginning with Aristotle do this by considering human nature, so perhaps you can and do get there but I’d have to read your other writings to see. Still, off the top of my head, life wants to survive so it ought to survive just doesn’t seem to follow in the same way that our other hypothetical imperatives seemed to.

5. Aesthetics
I probably know less about aesthetics than any other branch of philosophy. Let me just say that there is something about beauty that is intrinsically worthwhile. Truth, beauty, and goodness are the 3 great ideas by which we judge things. Here I’ll quote from Bertrand Russell’s last manuscript: “There is an artist imprisoned in each one of us. Let him loose to spread joy everywhere.”

[In the comments on this post]
Me: In my recent talk to North East Humanists about my philosophy, I added the following passage about aesthetics too:

———————
[Aesthetics] is something that many philosophers have shied away from, preferring to stick with rigorous, analytical topics rather than squishy emotional ones. But recently the philosopher Denis Dutton gave a TED talk titled “A Darwinian Theory of Beauty” that had a quote in it that I really like because it goes a long way towards explaining my position here. He said:

“The experience of beauty is one of the ways that evolution has of arousing or sustaining interest in order to encourage us towards making the most adaptive decisions for survival and reproduction.”

A lot more could be said about this quote, but I just want to make one point about it. And that is that, although “the experience of beauty” may indeed be subjective and in the eye of the beholder, we now all know a lot more about “making the most adaptive decisions for survival.” And so, I think our understanding of what is beautiful ought to change accordingly.
———————

Sylvia Wojcik queried me about this long essay (of what I learned during my writing about 100 thought experiments), and wondered where my thoughts were about “the meaning of life.” I didn’t have anything specific in here because Baggini didn’t have any thought experiments about this elusive topic, and I’m not sure whether it fits naturally into this framework I’m using (of the 6 branches of philosophy), or if it rises above it as a sort of metaphilosophy. I have come to think of aesthetics, though, as that which motivates and inspires us to find and fulfil the meaning in our lives. As an expert on TMOL, I wonder what you think of this relationship between aesthetics and TMOL.
 
John M: Haven’t really thought much about beauty and TMOL although lives which seek truth, create beauty, and involve (moral) goodness seem to paradigms of the meaningful life. As I said, my background in aesthetics is non-existent but it does seem that beauty and meaning are very closely associated terms. The philosopher who has written extensively about this connection of truth, beauty, and goodness to the meaning of life is Thaddeus Metz. But a life creating beauty is almost certainly a meaningful one.

6. Politics
I’m glad that Mr. Gibney discussed the prisoner’s dilemma at length as it is the key to understanding moral and political philosophy and many other things as well. (For more see “American Authoritarianism: Coming 2017.”) The desire to defect—to follow one’s own short-term interest at the expense of the group—may be the major problem of humankind today and it will (quite likely) lead to the destruction of the entire ecosystem on which life depends.

The question then arises as to how to deter egoistic behavior and encourage cooperative behavior. I advocate disablement strategies, that is making the selfish move impossible. Today this would involve enhancing human cognitive and moral functioning. We must re-engineer human beings or we will not survive. Radical as this may seem, I see no other option that is likely to be successful.

I also agree with Mr. Gibney about 1) limits to free speech, especially given the speed at which lies now spread quickly around the world; 2) the moral value of voluntary euthanasia; and 3) the need to include animals and AIs into the moral sphere.
 
[In the comments on this post]
Me: Thanks once again, John. I found this idea of yours really interesting:
 
–> “The question then arises as to how to deter egoistic behavior and encourage cooperative behavior. I advocate disablement strategies, that is making the selfish move impossible. Today this would involve enhancing human cognitive and moral functioning. We must re-engineer human beings or we will not survive. Radical as this may seem, I see no other option that is likely to be successful.”
 
I have a hard time disagreeing that we seem doomed as is, but I also wrote this:
“we are neither inherently good nor inherently evil—we are capable of both, a flexibility we must have in order to have the power to choose between alternate paths that are right some of the time and wrong some of the time.”
 
I can’t quite conceive of how to disable humans without getting rid of some of the flexibility we need. For example, in this disabled world, who would stand up to the government if it was headed down the wrong path? I think you’d need some level of selfish belief to do that. Also, I just have no idea how to practically disable the love of small circles of concern while keeping larger circles still loved.
 
I heard Yuval Harari talk on a podcast recently that he was actually encouraged by the recent rise of nationalism in the long history of humans. We have learned to love and defend very large circles of concern that didn’t really exist a few hundred years ago (depending on your location). I try to be hopeful that this trend will continue as information about the entire Earth spreads. I also wrote my second novel (shopping for a publisher again now that the one I found has dropped out of the publishing biz…rrrgghh) about a near future where humans discover how to live without ageing, because I think that kind of leap in lifespan (being) would have to lead to a similar leap in morality (being well, aka well-being). Maybe you can expand on your disabling theory though?

John M: Ed – I haven’t really thought through how disablement would work except to say generally that it would include things like implanting moral chips, messing with the genome, etc. And if we could extend our area of moral concern to the entire planet that would, of course, be ideal. Also, I really agree with the claim that increased lifespans would aid morality. For example, people wouldn’t be so quick to trash the ecosystem if they knew that would be alive to see the consequences of their actions.
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On Thursday, March 21st, 2019, I presented a talk about my evolutionary philosophy at the Annual General Meeting of the North East Humanists. It was a real honour to be invited, and the 40-minute presentation I gave was one that I slaved over for months and months (including many sleepless, nervous nights). The result summarises my work in what I think is one of the best formats I've come up with yet, so I thought I'd share it here for anyone who couldn't make it to the event, as well as for those who did go but wanted to review the material again. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it here and, as always, I welcome any thoughts and questions below.
So, the title of my talk tonight is, “What can evolution teach us about humanism?”
To answer that question, I’m going to go over three things tonight.
  • What is a humanist worldview?
  • What is an evolutionary worldview?
  • And more fundamentally, what is a worldview? How can we actually compare these sorts of things?
For the humanist worldview, I’ll try to describe that using the information I found in the online course from Humanist UK (HUK) that I took in January. For the evolutionary worldview, I’ll try to describe that by summarising the philosophy I’ve been working on for the last several years. Hopefully, once these two worldviews have been laid out side by side, we’ll be able to see how they might be able to learn something from one another. But before we can get to that general comparison, we have to define what it is that we are specifically going to compare.
So, what is a worldview exactly? I’m not sure how many of you saw this, but a report came out in 2018 from CORE—a Commission on Religious Education—and it was literally called “Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward—A National Plan for RE.” I know Ron shared this with the management committee in December, and it might have gone out on Facebook and twitter, but I don’t think it was sent directly to the general members. Anyway, right near the front of the report they had this inset block of text that gave their definition of a worldview. They say it is simply: “…a person’s way of understanding, experiencing, and responding to the world. … And they use the term ‘institutional worldview’ to describe organized worldviews shared among particular groups…[such as] religions as well as non-religious worldviews such as humanism, secularism, or atheism.”
So, here are some examples of institutional worldviews from religions as well as from humanist groups. For Christianity, there’s the Nicene Creed. Buddhism has its four noble truths and eightfold noble path. Islam has its five pillars that come from the Quran. The IHEU (now called Humanists International) has published two versions of a manifesto called “The Amsterdam Declaration.” The American Humanist Association has a brief but exacting statement that defines humanism and is published on the inside cover of every issue of their magazine. And we North East Humanists have a list of seven items on our website under a page called “What We Believe.” I find these all really interesting, but they are hard to compare with one another. Without a more exact definition of a worldview, it’s hard to analyse how they all overlap or contradict.
Well, a few years ago, I hunted around for a more exact definition of a worldview and ended up pulling these nineteen different elements from four good books and articles on the subject. Among these elements, we see that worldviews are supposed to do things like:
  • Tell us how to act
  • Tell us how to organize politically
  • Give us meaning and purpose
  • Tell us what is good, what is truth, and what is beauty
  • And many other things as well
These are ideas that we all have, either consciously or subconsciously. The elements are often interwoven and reinforce one another, but sometimes our beliefs might contradict each other too. It’s hard to dig in and examine this, though, unless you have a good checklist for everything that’s supposed to be in a worldview.
Well, to make a long story short, this is the best checklist, or framework, that I’ve found for how to look at worldviews. Quite simply, these are just the six main branches of philosophy as they are currently broken down. This makes sense when you look at the history of philosophy. Long before there was science, philosophy was the field where people went to study unknown things in the world. Aristotle wrote tons about biological classifications. Before that, the pre-Socratics wrote about atoms and the five basic elements of the universe—these were essentially their versions of physics and chemistry. Even Isaac Newton’s landmark book was called Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.

But once the scientific method was defined during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, basically any time a subject became understood well enough to be tested empirically, these pursuits were then split off into their own discipline. This is why some people have characterised the history of philosophy as one that spawns science. And so now, philosophers are left with only the most difficult things that we can’t quite wrap our arms around to measure and be certain about. That’s where radical choices can still made about what to believe in or not to believe in. In other words, this is where we can still find the greatest differences in our worldviews.
If we get rid of the jargon and just look at the six basic questions that these branches are trying to answer, then it becomes easier to see how this framework covers all of the nineteen elements of a worldview that we saw earlier. Epistemology studies what I can know. Metaphysics looks at what exists. Ethics tries to describe what is good, what is moral. Politics tries to answer how we can all live together. Logic looks for rules on how to reason and debate these things. And aesthetics searches for what beauty is, and how that might motivate us and give us meaning in life.
To make this all a bit clearer, I thought it would help to go through a quick example. So, let’s look at a simplified worldview of an extreme religious fundamentalist and see how that would look in my framework. They would say that what they know comes completely from the Bible or the Quran—from the one book that has revealed truth to them. As far as what exists, they may recognize that this world does, but only as a staging ground before their souls go on to heaven or hell. And since that afterlife is infinitely long it’s much more important than anything that happens here. As far as what good is, that also comes completely from whatever they’ve read in their holy books. And so, politically, they will work to see sharia law or “a Christian nation” implemented widely and based upon these earlier principles. When arguing about these things, they may try to be as logical as possible, but ultimately, they will always have to fall back on whatever it is that God or Allah said. And finally, when thinking about what beauty is, they tend to focus on religious works of art, or they look at natural things as simply part of “God’s wonderful creation” since he’s the only thing that can give meaning to life.

So, again, this is just a simplified example. Most people, even religious fundamentalists, are more complicated and nuanced than this. But I hope it shows that if you go through the details of these six items for a person or an institution, then you should begin to have a very good idea of what they are like.
Okay. So how would we describe a humanist worldview then? These are some highlights from the nearly fifty pages of notes I took during the six-week online course called “Introducing Humanism.” The words and phrases in bold were the ones that I thought best represented what HUK thought humanism is or could be.
Let’s try to boil that all down into my framework and see what that looks like. Before I jump in, I should say that the course was filled with disclaimers about the fact that no one can speak for all humanists, and there were a few examples given of differing viewpoints too. That’s why I have the question mark at the top of the slide. But let’s just take this as one humanist worldview, and then we can use that for further discussions.

So, taking that into account, a humanist might say that what we know comes from empirical observations only. Since there are no revelations from gods available to us, that leaves us with the scientific method, very broadly defined, as the only way to gain knowledge. And that knowledge is only ever provisional, because new observations might come along at any time that contradict what we currently believe, and we have to remain open to that. 

As far as what exists then, we’ve never detected any supernatural interventions in the universe, so we’re left with natural descriptions, or what is known as physicalism in philosophy. Without any reason to believe in a heaven or hell, humanists focus on this one life, and we try to make it a good one. 

So, what is good? Well, humanists think we get a sense of that from being social creatures who have evolved reasons to feel empathy and take care of one another, or indeed of any living thing that can feel pain and suffering. The course also mentioned repeatedly that because there aren’t any gods coming to save us, it’s up to us to take responsibility for the Earth and everything that we do to it. 

Politically, humanists have had a long tradition of campaigning for secular, just, free, and educated societies, in particular focusing on issues of human rights. In liberal democracies, this is built on something called the harm principle, which I’ll talk a bit more about later, but basically it means that we should be free to do what we want as long as we don’t harm others with our actions. 

The online course didn’t mention anything specific about the field of logic, but it did point out that we need to use reason and rationality to make our way through the world, so I’ve assumed there was an acceptance of what is called classical logic here. 

Finally, the course did end by noting that we humanists, contrary to what some might think, can also experience awe, beauty, and purpose, by simply enjoying nature, leading meaningful lives, or helping other humans flourish. 

So, altogether, this is the summary that I’ve put together of what the humanist worldview is, and it’s something I definitely want to hear your opinions on during the Q&A. But before we get to that, I want to go through some of my own philosophy and see how that might support or challenge some of these ideas.
So, this is the banner that I have at the top of each page on my website as I write philosophy that tries to keep the principles of evolution foremost in mind. This is something that the majority of philosophers in history obviously couldn’t do because they lived and wrote before Darwin. But even for the ones who came after him, the science around evolution has grown so quickly that later philosophers have often struggled, in my opinion, to keep up with latest developments and what they mean. Especially if they have remained focused on other pre-Darwin philosophers.
One philosopher who hasn’t missed this, though, is Dan Dennett who described evolution as a universal acid capable of eating through everything. In his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, he said evolution “eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognisable, but transformed in fundamental ways.” I agree with that completely and have found that evolution eats through every single element of my framework for worldviews too. So, I’d like to go through them all one by one now and try to show you what I mean by that.
The first part is evolutionary epistemology, or what we can know. The humanist course mentioned that we may not be able to know truth, but they didn’t say why, and I think that’s important enough to go into for a bit. Well, the story starts about 2400 years ago when Plato defined knowledge as Justified, True, Belief. That definition held up in the West until about the 1960’s when a short thought experiment known as the Gettier problem cast doubt on whether anyjustifications could ever be good enough to prove something could be true.

From an evolutionary perspective, though, this seems obvious. For something to be True with a capital T—eternally and always True—you’d need to find an eternally stable and known thing in the universe. But as Darwin and others showed us, the universe moves and changes, and perhaps more importantly, we cannot know what the future may bring. And so, philosophically speaking, we can’t be 100% sure that anything we claim to know will ever stand the test of time as being True.

That leads us to define knowledge as Justified, Beliefs, that are Surviving. And when I say surviving, I don’t just mean these beliefs are existing in someone’s head somewhere; I mean that they’re capable of surviving our best rational tests. Justified beliefs shouldn’t be discarded just because we can’t be sure that they are True. They should only be replaced when we find even better justified beliefs. And since it seems like this is something that will always continue to happen, we should say that our knowledge will continue to evolve too.
Next up, is the branch of metaphysics, or what exists. Basically, the evolutionary position here is just to drop the meta since all we’ve ever witnessed in our evolutionary history are physical processes. This is also similar to what the humanist course said, but it does lead to positions on a whole range of philosophical issues that weren’t discussed in the course. Issues such as identity, the mind-body problem, consciousness, and free will. I’ll be happy to discuss any of those in the Q&A if you want, but for now I think it’s fine to just move on in broad agreement about this view of the universe as natural, i.e. non-supernatural.
The next branch in my framework is ethics. This is where we see the most difference between an evolutionary philosophy and the humanist worldview, so I’ll need to spend a bit more time on this. So, we see here on this slide that ethical positions are traditionally divided into three camps.
  1. The first is consequentialism, which, just as the name implies, tries to determine if our actions will have good or bad consequences. Utilitarianism is the most famous example of this, and it’s one that the online course said is often appealing to humanists.
  2. The second traditional camp is deontology, or rule-based ethics. People in this camp look for hard and fast rules to govern our actions. Rules such as the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, or Kant’s categorical imperative.
  3. Finally, the last camp of virtue ethics traces back to Aristotle who tried to find character traits that are always virtuous in and of themselves.
Now, all three of these camps have problems with them, however. We can’t always know, for example, the full consequences of our actions, and we don’t have accepted definitions of good or bad outcomes either. And for the last two camps, philosophers have always managed to find exceptions where rules or virtues just don’t work the way we want them to. That’s why surveys of professional philosophers show that they are all over the map in terms of which camp they think is the best one. For me, though, I think an evolutionary perspective can help to modify each of these, and then combine them into a new and stronger position. So, let me go through each of those.
To start, if we want to talk about consequentialism, it helps to think about evolutionary consequences. This simple picture shows the fundamental way that all evolutionary processes work. There is variation in a population, some selection mechanism, and then the retention of just a portion of the original population. Do this over and over, and you have evolution. We usually say this is done blindly in nature, so it’s often characterised as BVSR (blind variation selection and retention), but after Darwin, there’s no reason we have to be blind about it anymore.

So, there may be a few different selection processes—natural selection, sexual selection, multilevel group selection, and even rational selections of cultural memes—but after any one of them, there are only two possible outcomes in any evolutionary process. Retention……or extinction. Unless you believe in afterlives, that’s all there is. And most of us know which side of that equation we’d like to end up on.
But how do we choose whose evolutionary interests get met? The humanist course cited Peter Singer’s work on this question quite a lot, and in particular this book called The Expanding Circle. In there, Singer said it would be a logical error to look at our evolutionary history and make the case that any one person, social group, or even species are deserving of special interests as God’s chosen things. And so therefore, Singer thought we ought to give equal consideration to all of these groups. He said that we could use our reason and empathy to expand our circle of moral concern to include all sentient creatures.

Now I think this is a step in the right direction, but by giving everyone equal consideration, Singer gave us no way to judge between competing interests. Which is more important, for example? My economic livelihood, or the life of a fish? Singer may have brought more beings into our moral conversation, but he still left us squabbling between various circles of insiders and outsiders.
But if you look at our evolutionary history, of course, we’re all inside the same circle. All of life is related and interrelated. This is something that the evolutionary scientist E.O. Wilson talked about extensively in his book Consilience, subtitled The Unity of Knowledge. This book was his attempt to unite all of the different fields of biology, which he felt were becoming too siloed and separate from one another. And the way that he proposed to do this was by organizing them into larger and larger circles based on the magnitude of time and space.
As Wilson said, biology, the study of life, starts with biochemistry at the smallest levels, which under certain conditions forms molecular biology, and cellular biology, before the creation of individuals who can be studied in various forms of organismic biology. Those individuals can then be examined in their different social groups, that live in different ecosystems, and adapt slowly over evolutionary timeframes.

So, this picture now contains all of the major fields of biology, and therefore it can act as a guide for how to study or care about all of the life that has ever existed or ever will. And that brings me to what I think is the ultimate evolutionary consequence that we have to consider. No matter what squabbles we have, in or between any of these individual circles, the most important overriding goal that rises above everything, is that, we want all of this continue. We want the entire project of life to keep going. To fail at that goal would mean universal death. And once we agree that that consequence ought to be avoided, then these sciences can start to give us a list of what life needs in order to continue its journey. So, what are some of those needs? 
Many of you will have heard of the humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. His list is often shown as a pyramid, which makes sense..
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Hello! I was asked to speak at an event at the end of September to give my thoughts on a book called Doing Philosophy, which was written by Timothy Williamson who is the Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. I was one of four such speakers at the event, where Professor Williamson gave opening remarks, and rebuttals to us as well. This was all set up to be featured in the latest edition of The Philosopher (the official journal of the Philosophical Society of England, and the UK's longest-running public philosophy journal, having started in 1923) and it has now finally been published. Due to changes in the time (and space) constraints at the event (and in the journal), my full original 10-minute talk wasn't able to be given (or published), but I can happily share the complete text here. I hope you enjoy it!
(A low-quality video of my talk can be seen here, but I don't recommend it for anyone other than my mom.)
Doing Philosophy: Thought Experiments and the Truth About Truth
Timothy Williamson’s book Doing Philosophy, is being reviewed as part of an event called “The Art of Reason.” This is a catchy phrase, written as if it were a single idea, but usually art and reason are two subjects that are viewed quite separately. C.P. Snow famously put them into two distinct cultures that cannot even talk to one another. Williamson, however, makes a strong case in his book that these two cultures can be reconciled, and that philosophical thought experiments provide an excellent example of how to do so.

In preparation for this event, I read through a book on how to give TED talks by Chris Anderson (he’s the owner of TED), and I was stunned to see him bring up the topic of the power of philosophical thought experiments. This seemed like an amazing coincidence to me, but the reason is because Anderson wants his readers to give memorable talks. He quoted the philosopher Dan Dennett who noted that it was thought experiments that have provided the most remarkable passages in the history of philosophy — not formal proofs. Only a very few people can recall the premises and conclusion of some important logical syllogism. But many, many more people will have heard of Plato’s allegory of the cave, or the innocent bystander on the tracks near a runaway trolley, or maybe even the child called Mary who was locked away in her black and white room while she learned “everything there is to know about the colour red.”

Why do we remember these thought experiments? Because they are art. They are stories that evoke strong emotional responses. They have memorable characters who are tied up in some conflict, and we’re not sure how, or even if, they’ll be able to get out of it. But if they are art, why do we get to use them in philosophy? Why do they count for arguments of reason too? As Williamson memorably asks, “How come philosophers get away with just sitting in their armchairs and imagining it all?”

The reason is that our imagination is an incredible tool that has been honed to a fine edge over billions of years of evolution. Evolution is usually characterised as a series of trials and errors, but ones that are done blindly by Mother Nature. And until very recently, that’s how all life on Earth adapted and survived — blindly. But now that we know about this, we humans can conduct those trials and errors with a bit of wise foresight and consciousness. Scientists carefully plan their trials and errors all the time, but there are some places where it’s impossible for scientists to go. As Williamson says:

“Imagination is especially useful when trial and error is too risky. … Imagining is [also] our most basic way of learning about hypothetical possibilities. … Only the dumbest animals would not think about [these possibilities]. … Thought experimentation is just a slightly more elaborate, careful, and reflective version of that process, in the service of some theoretical investigation. Without it, human thought would be severely impoverished.”

Williamson is right. Over thousands of years, some of the best thinkers in history have churned out mountains of these trials and errors of the imagination, and they have the power to fundamentally change the way we navigate the world. They’ve certainly changed the way I do.

You see, I’m a writer, and I try to write fiction and philosophy. Like all writers, though, I’ve heard the advice that you have to “write what you know.” But Socrates said, “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.” And then there was Ernest Hemingway, who once described his own process by saying, “All you have to do is write one true sentence.” But it has become common now to hear that we live in a “post-truth” world. So how do we reconcile these bits of philosophy with the conventional advice to a writer? The answer I found came from philosophical thought experiments, which shows just how powerful and useful they can be.

A few years ago, I came across Julian Baggini’s book The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten and 99 other Thought Experiments. Since I’m always looking to test out my ideas, I decided to go through them all, one-by-one, for the next two years or so on my website. Many of the thought experiments taught me many different and valuable lessons, but there were three in particular that helped me arrive at an answer to the simple question of how to write “true” sentences.

First, there’s Zeno’s paradox. In the version of this that I like, a race is set up between Achilles and a tortoise. The tortoise is given a generous head start, but since Achilles is much faster, he should have plenty of time to catch him. The problem, however, is that Zeno says there is no way he can ever catch the tortoise. At least not according to logic. Zeno explains this by showing how Achilles will first have to run to the place that the tortoise started from. But by that time, the tortoise will have moved further down the track. So now, Achilles will have to run to that spot. But once again, the tortoise will have moved on. And since this will happen over, and over, and over, there’s just no way that Achilles can ever catch the tortoise. Of course, in real life, we know that faster runners overtake slower ones all the time. So how do we solve this paradox?

The short answer to me is that as Achilles approaches the tortoise, Zeno is asking us to divide time into smaller and smaller increments, slowing time down, until we basically have to stop, and wait, while the philosopher continues to calculate smaller and smaller distances, possibly even beyond the smallest increments in the fabric of space-time. But of course, that’s impossible. As the saying goes, time waits for no man. The universe always keeps moving. And so, Achilles can, and does, pass his tortoise.

The second memorable thought experiment for this topic of truth is the one about Descartes’ evil demon. This isn’t so much a story, as it is just the creation of a really gripping character. You see, Descartes, like a lot of philosophers, really wanted to be right. He desperately wanted to prove that there was some foundation upon which all knowledge could be built. But in order to do that, he knew that he had to defeat the most powerful and pesky demon imaginable, one that just might be out there waiting to trick us and our senses.

In Baggini’s treatment of this experiment, he notes that many of us may have seen shows where a hypnotist gets an audience member to swear that 2 + 2 = 5. Now if this idea is even plausible, how do we know that we aren’t all being tricked? What would happen if we all just snapped out of it some day and saw things totally differently? Now this sounds crazy. And we certainly don’t live in the world as if it were like this. But the point is that this kind of hyperbolic doubt exists, because, as we saw in Zeno’s paradox, the universe is always moving and changing. We cannot stop it, and more importantly, we cannot see into the future. And this, therefore, makes us doubt all knowledge. At least just a little bit. That’s an ancient position in philosophy called scepticism, which Professor Williamson mentions in his book, but he dismisses it rather quickly. He simply says, “Sceptics will be only too pleased to exploit [their] power to drag you into the sceptical pit with them. You had best be careful whom you talk to.”

But that brings us to the third thought experiment, the Gettier problem, which I think helps us see how we can talk to these sceptics, and deal with them just fine. The Gettier problem looks at the concept of knowledge, which, ever since Plato, has been defined in the West as justified, true, belief. But Edmund Gettier managed to overturn that dominant definition with just a short two-page paper published in 1963. Honestly, Gettier’s examples are really boring — they aren’t good art — which is possibly why this hasn’t reached a wider audience. But the version that Baggini used to illustrate it is much better, so I’ll use that one to introduce it.

Baggini tells us about a woman called Naomi who was at a coffee shop when she noticed a really unusual man behind her drop a really unusual keychain. She didn’t talk to him, but he was just one of those people that makes a deep impression. The very next day, Naomi was walking down the street when she witnessed a tragic accident — a car killed a pedestrian, and it turned out to be the very same man! The police interviewed Naomi to get some help identifying the body, and she told them about the coffee shop and the odd keychain, both of which turned out to be true. A week later, however, Naomi was back in the coffee shop again when she turned around and screamed. She saw the very same man fumbling with the very same keychain. He quickly calmed her down though and said that this had been happening a lot lately, ever since his twin brother had been killed last week.

This might sound innocent enough, but Naomi is an example of someone who had good justifications, for her beliefs, and those beliefs turned out to be true. But this was only because she was lucky. She might just as easily have seen the twin brother during one of her first two encounters, and then her knowledge would have been wrong. The problem for philosophers is that we never seem to have enough facts to justify our knowledge as being true. The so-called JTB Theory of Knowledge collapses, not because our justifications aren’t robust and durable, but because Zeno’s Paradox and Descartes’ Evil Demon showed us that these justifications cannot get us to the truth. At least, not in any way that we can know it. (Note: this is an epistemological claim about what we can know, not an ontological claim about whether truth can exist.)

This might sound like a really scary admission. But all good scientists demonstrate this when they tell us that their discoveries are only ever provisional, that they could be overturned with any new observations. These scientists are using an evolutionary epistemology. To them, knowledge can only ever be justified, beliefs, that are currently surviving our best tests. This is what I call my JBS Theory of Knowledge. No number of scientific observations will prove that theory, but with the help of a few carefully constructed and creatively designed thought experiments, I think we can confidently arrive at its conclusion.

So, there may not be “truth,” and as an author I may not be able to write “true sentences.” But we can all tinker around and experiment with trial and error to try to think and write things that survive. And sometimes they will. Possibly even for a long time. That’s the best we can do with all of our thought experiments — the artistic ones, and the ones of reason. I think this is great news because it means authors and philosophers will never run out of work. This is also why Williamson’s book isn’t called How Philosophy is Done. Philosophy is not, and seemingly never could be, a finished product — it’s an ongoing verb. And that’s why I highly recommend picking up one of the many collections of thought experiments that are out there. They’re a great way to sit back and enjoy a bit of fiction, and as Williamson advocates, an even better way to keep doing philosophy.
 
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Ed Gibney is a writer and evolutionary philosopher who blogs about his beliefs and the fiction it inspires at evphil.com
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Hello! It's been four months since I posted my last short story so I must sadly be getting slower at writing these. Hopefully this will be one of the hardest ones to write though since it actually required me to write 33 tiny stories (aka perspectives). Now that I've finished this one though, I've completed my first mini-collection of stories for a virtue. In case you forgot, I'm writing these short stories of strength based on 24 character strengths that have been sorted by positive psychologists into 6 virtues. I'll be sending out more information soon about the collection I've completed on the virtue of wisdom, but until then, I hope you enjoy my perspective on gaining perspective.

​Perspective

​Being able to provide wise counsel to others; having ways of looking at the world that make sense to oneself and to other people. Although you may not think of yourself as wise, your friends hold this view of you. They value your perspective on matters and turn to you for advice. You have a way of looking at the world that makes sense to others and to yourself.
    — Peterson & Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues, 2004


Introduction
In January of 20YY, the 99-year lease of the land known as Hoggs Fell will expire. The current lease was procured by the artist and activist Betty Carver who requested that her estate be used to purchase the rights to this land from the local government authority at the time of her death. She loved the shepherding way of life in the Lake District and sought to ensure that land would remain available for it despite enormous threats from outside developers. The open land in question (approximately 1,300 hectares) has since then acted as a de facto commons with grazing rights granted to a few dozen farmers, but it is not currently one of the 630 official commons registered in the county of Cumbria.

Although Ms. Carver’s arrangement has resulted in nearly one hundred years of use for traditional shepherding, this is still only a small part of Hoggs Fell’s long history. The current lease helped to extend a way of life that had already taken hold for several hundred years, if not perhaps for a few thousand. However, the question of how this land should continue to be used has once again been raised. Before the current lease comes to an end, the local council has commissioned the following report to gather views from the public and make recommendations on what the next phase of use of this land should look like.


Methodology
“A wise man sees as much as he ought, not as much as he can.”
    — Michel de Montaigne

“Wisdom is having sufficient awareness, in various situations and contexts, to act in ways that enhance our common humanity.”
     — Caroline Bassett, founder of The Wisdom Institute

It is easy to know yourself as an individual, to know what you value, and argue for your interests in a passionate and rational manner. It is only slightly less easy for adults to see another perspective too, to have empathy for what others may want, even if you disagree with their values. What is truly difficult, however, is to see all perspectives. As far as that is possible, this is what is required to gain the wide awareness that was spoken of or implied in the quotes above. And gathering such awareness is the goal that guided the methods used for this report.

To begin, research was done on the possible uses of common land, and how such uses might be funded. This generated many possible courses of action, but it gives no means by which to choose any one of them. No facts about what an option is can tell us whether we ought to choose it. To find the best thing to do, we must know and consider the feelings and desires of all those who would be affected by the decision. We have to know what these stakeholders want in order for us to have any hope of generating consensus by satisfying their desires. As such, a wide variety of methods were undertaken to gather as many different views as possible—online surveys, telephone interviews, in-person conversations, and reviews of both formal and informal literature. Since each response has a value that is independent of the method used to obtain it though, all of the views were converted into statements quoted from a first-person perspective in order to place them all on an equal footing. Views expressed repeatedly were also consolidated into one single quote. These transformations have the effect of expressing each view in its most forceful manner, but do not allow any single idea to shout down the others due to sheer volume. The resulting quotes are presented below in the “Perspectives” section.

Beyond the gathering of these opinions, further research was conducted on how to make wise decisions in the face of competing interests. It must be said that a definition for wisdom itself is necessary for this and that is a contentious issue for philosophers from all schools of thought. Aspects of wisdom that seemed most appropriate to the current situation were identified, however, and the findings from this research will be discussed below in the section on “Considerations.”

Finally, we would like to stress that the judgments and recommendations in our “Conclusions” section below would have been impossible to arrive at without undertaking the full journey of grappling with the variety and depth of feelings that have been expressed on this issue. Hoggs Fell in the Lake District of England is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. It has a long and vibrant history of both struggle and celebration from the humans who have lived there or visited it. Because of this, it is vital to take the time to read through all of the responses about the future of Hoggs Fell before attempting to settle on a proposed use for it. It is our considered opinion, after having undertaken this project, that regardless of one’s initial position on the situation, this is such a complicated issue that your feelings will certainly be swayed by others as long as you do not try to jump straight to (this report’s) conclusions.


Perspectives
This section represents the heart of the report and was the most difficult to communicate in a coherent manner. The views gathered below were not all positive, or negative, or always even sure of which side they were on. And although the views were expressed by single individuals, they were not generally concerned with individual needs alone. This array of concerns, however, is precisely the most important factor that explains the way we have chosen to present the information and thereby understand it.

In his book The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, the philosopher Peter Singer described how a person can logically widen their moral considerations from the self, to their family, to segments of society, and beyond. While one circle of concern is not necessarily better or more compelling than another, this concept from Singer was an inspiration for how we organized all of the perspectives we collected. They are presented below in ever widening circles, but the circles that were chosen were also influenced by a template from noted scientist E.O. Wilson, which he created for the purposes of consolidating all of the various fields of biology (i.e. the study of all life). So after starting with the immediate self, we widened our circles as far as they can possibly go, all the way to the consideration of life over evolutionarily long timeframes. Our hope is that the journey through these circles will widen any reader’s views, while also allowing them to feel the importance of every view that has been expressed along the way.

Self

“I grew up here. I live here year round. And generations of family members have passed local knowledge on to me. Because of all this, I have a deep love and intimate relationship with this land that just cannot be matched by any outsiders. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but my opinion should count for more than the vote of some tourist or recently retired pensioner who hasn’t been here for very long. And I say the land should continue to be used as it has always been used.”

“There’s a feeling I get on a warm autumn night, when I’m walking the sheep back from the fell, with my dogs acting as long-distance extensions of my own will. It’s just indescribably fulfilling. The sense of purpose I have and the confidence I get from playing my part in shaping this land is something few people will ever know. You cannot know what a loss it would be to take that away from me.”

“I personally gave up farming on this land because it was just too much work for less and less of a reward. No one wants wool or meat for the prices I would have had to charge. I felt trapped. And I saw first hand how destructive farming is to people and the environment. It’s an old-fashioned way of life that just doesn’t make sense to me anymore.”

“I moved to the Lake District after my husband died and it has brought me back to life. I walk in the hills every day and feel that there is a spirituality or magic here that ought to be preserved. The less development the better as far as I am concerned.”

Family

“A few years ago, our dog got away from us while we were walking in this area. She’d never seen sheep before and she started chasing them around, trying to get them to play. A farmer came out and shot her and then yelled at me for endangering his livelihood. It was absolutely devastating and our whole family remains heartbroken over it to this day. A few months later, I’m sure many of those farmer’s sheep were butchered and sold for meat. I would pay dearly to have my little family member back with me, but that was of no concern to the farmer. If they are allowed to keep using this land they should at least be better at sharing it. But if it were up to me, I would prefer to see them gone.”

“My son is only four years old and already he hangs on the fence outside of our sheep pens and yells advice to me about what he thinks I’m doing wrong. My own father watches his grandson and chuckles at this. He says I was exactly the same at his age. How can you put a price on this kind of family bond? And what is the cost of breaking it? Please let my family keep their traditions alive.”

Present Community

“I run an outdoor adventure company located here in the Lake District and we rely on having safe, beautiful, and accessible mountain areas to run our business. We are part of a tourism industry that brings in millions of pounds and provides hundreds if not thousands of jobs in the region. I really believe that we would thrive even more if the common land on Hoggs Fell was returned to the wild and kept open for visitors rather than being controlled by a few old-fashioned sheep farmers who would just as soon chuck us all out if they could.”

“My store in Cockermouth has been flooded three times in the last decade because the land in the watersheds above us hasn’t been managed properly. The farmers who think they own this land for themselves have cleared the hillsides of almost every single tree just to make their lives a little easier. This means water runoff has increased significantly. I’ve read that rain soaks into the ground 67 times more effectively under trees than on sheep pasture. That’s an unbelievable difference! Those of us downstream from Hoggs Fell need to see more trees and less sheep up there.”

“Modern farming is capital intensive and very variable from season to season and year to year. It could not survive without the significant technical and financial help that we in the banking industry give it. This is a partnership that we are very proud to be a part of. My own bank has made significant investments in the form of loans to farmers that take many years to pay off. If you start taking places like Hoggs Fell away from the farmers, they will not be able to repay us. Even if the government decides to pay off the few loans affected by the loss of Hoggs Fell, the fear that this type of ‘rewilding’ will continue to occur will cause many banks to just give up on farmers. I can see why some people may want to make small changes, but you have to understand that Hoggs Fell could be the first domino to fall that takes down an entire industry.”

“As one of the 20,000 or so farmers that live and work full time in the Lake District, I’m very worried about this whole consultation process. How are we going to compete with the voices of over 20 MILLION people who visit here every year? I’m very worried that the tyranny of this majority will take my livelihood away from me, even though these people only come here for a few days or weeks. Just because they have more people and more money doesn’t make them right.”

“I don’t have any faith that the government can step in here and make any kind of wise decision. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Better to just let things continue as is. That’s what I say.”

Intergenerational Community

“My family has worked this land for centuries. It took thousands of years of trial and error for my ancestors to learn how to live in tough environments like this one. It would be foolish to throw all thatknowledge away. Who knows what’s going to happen with changing climates and a reduction in fossil fuels? Future generations may need our farming skills. More than we might think. And sooner too.”

“I run a folk museum in the Highlands of Scotland, which has a very similar landscape and history tothe Lake District. I love coming here to see how the old crofting ways have survived and adapted to modern times, but sometimes I can’t help but think that today’s farmers are doomed. I worry they will soon be nothing more than folklore for future museums. We should at least gather their stories while we can.”

“I know I’m just another tourist who has fallen in love with the Lake District, but I went to Norway on holiday recently and saw that they were trying to encourage people to farm in their remote valleys again. Those places in Norway are beautiful, but they’re empty. They just don’t have the magic that the Lake District has. Future tourists to England should get to see this difference too. Hold on to what you’ve got.”

“Every time I see sheep in the hills I get angry thinking about my ancestors who were kicked off their small farms by wealthy landowners during the Clearances. A lot of families suffered and died so these stupid animals could have all the grass they want and their masters could get richer. It’s time to turn the tables and clear the sheep!”

Extended Society

“With all due respect to the local farmers, I feel like we taxpayers have already bought and paid for this land. I don’t know the figures for the Lake District, but in Wales the average farmer earns £33,000 even though they get £53,000 in subsidies. So we’re not propping up struggling farmers — we’re giving money to people who are losing it! That doesn’t even count the millions that are spent fixing roads due to the landslides caused by overgrazing on sheep pastures.”

“I’m worried this project is deeply flawed. You can’t look at Hoggs Fell just on its own. The whole UK sheep industry depends on a ‘stratified’ system with different breeds in different locations contributing to a diversity of characteristics for the whole group. If you take one element away, the whole thing could collapse. Do you want to leave the UK with just a few massive monoculture industrial farms? No! Keep the sheep.”

“I just want to leave a note to make sure that we think about all the antibiotics that farmers use. Their animals are kept in unhealthy conditions so they have to use lots of pills to make up for that. The problem is that this creates superbugs that could wipe out the rest of society. Why are we letting farmers do this just for the sake of a few more sheep on a few less acres?”

“Sheep only make up about 1% of all the calories we eat in the UK, but they take up the same amount of land as all other crops combined! That’s more than twice the amount we use for the built environment. Why do they need so much? Why give them every scrap of available land? We should take some back when we can, and use it for other things.”

“Tourists may talk about coming to the Lake District to ‘see the landscape,’ but there’s a cultural landscape here too. Visitors may not know it, but the cleared hilltops like Hoggs Fell are managed by a cooperative of local farmers, which is an important example of sharing resources that the world needs to hang onto. Without us, the Lakes would turn into a fake Disney ride. Something like ‘The Wilderness Adventure Land’ or even worse!”

“We all know upland grazing steals water from more productive places downhill. And then it floods those places when it rains heavily. So all in all, this sheep farming probably destroys more food than it creates. It’s not the farmers’ fault though. The EU subsidy rules require them to keep their land in ‘agricultural condition’ or they won’t get paid. Something needs to change.”

“I come from a family of coal miners who were devastated when that industry was shut down, but there’s something I finally got my head around after all that. Just because a thing has been done one way for a long time doesn’t automatically make it right. Farming is dependent on fossil fuels and government subsidies, just like the miners were. But we shouldn’t use fossil fuels anymore. I don’t want my tax dollars or my lungs to pay for these out-of-date activities any more. The government didn’t help my family then, and that was wrong, but they need to figure out how to help these farmers make a change now.”

“It makes me sick to think that the ‘common’ land on Hoggs Fell could be taken away from us simply because it’s managed by ‘common’ people who have no political power. Every other nice bit of land in this country has been bought up and enclosed by wealthy lords or their modern day equivalents. The local farmers here have worked this land for centuries and have therefore earned it as our share of the commonwealth of England. Just because it’s beautiful doesn’t mean outsiders should get to come in and kick us off. I don’t go to London and demand that the Thames should flow wild.”

“I have fallen in love with the Lake District. My direct ancestors may not have gotten here first, but that shouldn’t mean I have no say in what goes on there. Those farmers’ families didn’t build up the Royal Navy, explore the world, dig coal, develop financial markets, invent the steam locomotive, or any of the other millions of things—good and bad—that have made our country what it is today. We all live here now and benefit from a rich and complicated history, so we all have an obligation to share the riches that have accrued here.”

Ecology / Animal Welfare

“Here’s a fact for your study. There are 36 million sheep in the UK and just about half of them are lambs under one year of age. People think that ‘grass-fed, free-range sheep’ are all living these happy lives on beautiful hills, but we’re killing 17 million baby sheep every year. That’s not right.”

“The herdwick sheep we keep on Hoggs Fell are a unique and ancient breed. Did you know that when we sell them, there’s a tradition of ‘redding’ their fleeces, even though no one knows why we do that anymore? One theory is that Celtic peoples over a thousand years ago worshiped their flocks in some sort of animism ritual, and that’s why they painted their sheep. This is a perfect example of just how sacred these animals are to us. You have to respect that.”

“Tourists will tell you that this landscape is ‘romantic’, but anyone who works here knows its not. Let me tell you some real stories of what goes on here. Cute lambs get their legs broken by panicking mothers and I have to put simple splints on them because there’s no time or money to do anything more. When lambs are stillborn, I skin their bodies and put them on other orphaned lambs like new coats so that the mothers who lost their own babies will adopt them as their own. Anyone who wants to eat a lamb chop or walk in a grassy pasture has to face up to this. We farmers need to be here to remind city folk of what’s real. Life in the countryside isn’t all poetry and paintings.”

“I grew up here, but I’ve come to realize that there’s something wrong with the men in this valley. Every spring, when I was a child, my brothers would go out with my dad and the other farmers and just shoot every black bird they could find. Ravens, rooks, magpies, jackdaws, … you name it, they killed it. They said they were just trying to protect their sheep from birds that might peck an eye out or eat a dead lamb, but I think they just wanted to kill things for fun. I think they get a taste for it because of all the sheep they have to kill. It really worries me.”

“Hoggs Fell should not only be kept for sheep farming, but tourists should be banned from the area as well. Too many times, people come here from their sheltered city lives and they let their dogs loose who then terrorise our sheep. I’ve seen a dog tear the jawbone off one of my sheep before happily running back to its owner. And my 10-year-old daughter had to watch two dogs playing tug of war with another of our sheep. Both times our animals had to be put down and my family members have been traumatised.”

“I know you can only interview people for this decision about Hoggs Fell, but someone needs to speak up for the other animals too. I’m a wildlife biologist so let me give you some facts that tell the story of our nonhuman animal relatives. 97% of bee habitat in the UK has been destroyed since WWII. Because of sheep, grouse, and deer farming, there are hardly any trees in the UK above 200 meters in elevation. The average forest cover across Europe is 37%, but in Britain it is only 13%. After thousands of years of stripping this upland of its nutrients, it’s so infertile that it only takes 5 or 10 sheep per square kilometer to make sure no trees will ever grow there. You’ll see more birds and other species of animals in a suburban garden than you will in five miles of walking across our Lake District hills. It may seem like the Lakes has been this way forever and could..
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