Sunday, June 24, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Alexandra Lange, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids (Bloomsbury Publishing, NY: 2018)

Alexandra Lange, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids (Bloomsbury Publishing, NY: 2018)
 This is a welcome addition to a genre of scholarly research that explores the nature and history of childhood play. The author is a well-published critic of human-constructed architectural environments. This most recent book explores the “Design of Childhood.” Much of it is historical, identifying the principles that underlie the ebb and flow how adults (for better or worse) have designed material environments and toys (large and small) for children since the early twentieth century. Chapter titles reveal much about its foci: Blocks, House, School, Playground, and City. One of the over-riding themes is the observation that, since the late 20th century, adults have been over-protecting children and thereby undermining their independence, creativity, and social development. By the authors own admission, the book is intended to be more descriptive (facts) than prescriptive (values), which is mostly true. But at least some critics will argue that this emphasis resulted in wishy-washy prescriptive conclusions, as evident in its final sentences, which urge us to learn from the past in order to “make childhood a better place.” Nevertheless, this is an important addition to a rapidly expanding genre that has largely ignored design issues.    

Reviewed for Choice Magazine by: Ronald F. White, Ph.D.



Monday, June 18, 2018

The Philosophy of Play

                            By: Ronald F. White, Ph.D.
                               Professor of Philosophy
                           Mount St. Joseph University

            Scholars agree that, at all times, in all places, and at all stages of post-natal development, human beings exhibit, what we all (rather loosely) refer to as “play behavior.” Among the many scholarly disciplines that study “play,” philosophy is foundational. That’s because play is inherently multidisciplinary, while philosophy has become increasingly interdisciplinary. Therefore it is well-postured to contribute toward a more unified theory of play. A well-developed, unified theory will address the most important foundational questions, including: What exactly is “play behavior” and how is it distinguished from “non-play behavior?” Based on that theory, do non-human species play, if so how does non-human play behavior compare to human play?  What are toys and how do they relate to play? Over time and place, how and why does play and toys vary within and between cultures? What are the determinants that influence the amount of time, effort, and resources that humans and non-humans devote to play? And finally, how might future philosophers contribute to the advancement of playtime research in other disciplines?

            Before we can make much progress on the “philosophy of play,” we must address the two age-old questions: “What do philosophers do?” and, “Are philosophers useful?” Most philosophers agree that they “ask questions and pose answers,” and that the vast majority of professional philosophers teach in colleges and universities. But once they get beyond those two acknowledgments, there is not much agreement. Most notably, there is widespread disagreement as to which questions are worth asking, how to go about answering those questions, and what questions require philosophical, non-scientific, and/or scientific answers. There is also widespread agreement that epistemological questions are foundational, especially: What is a Theory? What is Truth? What is Value? And, how do Truth and Value relate to one another? Hence, we have the revival of the old positivist agenda that seeks to transform values (good and bad) into facts (true and false). Let’s add that non-philosophers often ask/answer philosophical issues and that non-philosophers reinterpret those philosophical questions, and sometimes they do not acknowledge that some questions/answers are inexorably philosophical or non-philosophical. Most disciplinary approaches to the study of play contain unstated epistemological assumptions; especially the nature of theories, truth and value. Therefore, in order to address these epistemological issues and work toward towards a “unified theory of play,” this essay will argue that this unification requires both biological and cultural evolution.
In recent times, many philosophers have become interdisciplinary scholars, and therefore employ philosophical theories as a way to bridge the gaps between various disciplines. Scientific explanations of human behavior invoke scientific theories. So based on contemporary science, what distinguishes “play” from “non-play?”

As a matter of sheer logic, playtime philosophers agree that play must be fun. So if we engage in a behavior that is not fun, it’s not play. Of course, this raises the question: What is fun? Well, fun (by definition) must be pleasurable. Evolutionary psychologists, observe that, at least some, human feelings of pleasure and pain are evolutionarily shaped, over vast expanses of time, by natural and/or sexual selection. Feelings of pleasure, naturally, incite us to engage in that behavior again, and feelings of pain discourage us from doing it again. Those feelings can be materially reduced to various chemical changes that take place within the human body, especially the presence and/or absence of the hormone serotonin. Similarly, neuroscientists can now differentiate between the experience of pain and pleasure by looking at the flow of neurons within human brain via various imaging technologies.

At least some feelings of pain and pleasure can also be shaped by social and/or cultural norms present at any given time or place. Thus, social scientists distinguish between human behaviors that are timelessly universal from those that are relative to specific times and places. Although “play-behavior,” in general, is timelessly universal, it manifests itself in forms that are historically and/or culturally relative. Developmental psychologists might seek to explain how “play” changes over the course of a human person’s lifetime: At what age do these changes take place? Why do these changes take place? Is child’s play different from adult play; and if so, how? Anthropologists and sociologists might seek to identify changes over time within and between cultures. The most complex forms of historically and culturally relative play are often comprised of timelessly universal components; shaped by biological evolution.

In sum, there are three empirical observations that underlie playtime science. First, “play” is, obviously, a form of human behavior and therefore its presence or absence can be empirically verified and/or falsified by external observation. Second, human play behavior can be internally observed in terms of a “player’s own psychological states via the feelings and thoughts that accompany that behavior. In short, we all know, directly, when we’re experiencing pleasure and pain. Third, it is also empirically evident that other primates and hominids exhibit similar patterns of “play-like” behavior.

Theories are complex beliefs that have both theoretical social implications. Some playtime scholars focus their time, energy, and resources on theoretical concerns such as empirical evidence, logical consistency, and soundness; while others note that all theories serve a variety of social functions, at various times and places. So what are the social functions of contemporary playtime theories serve, and how do we evaluate those functions; that is, how do we differentiate between a “good theory of play” and a “bad theory of play?”

Monday, May 21, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Tamler Sommers, Why Honor Matters (Basic Books: 2018)

There has been growing interest among moral philosophers in the revival of “virtue-based” and/or “honor-based” moral theories and culture, as an alternative to the prevailing Western, post-Enlightenment, “dignity-based” theories and cultures (duty or utility). This well-argued, well-written defense of honor covers the traditional arguments for and against these major theories. According to Sommers, one of most compelling arguments against dignity-based theories and culture, especially in the United States, has been the rise of “zero-risk culture.” He also contributes many new arguments for and against competing theories of dignity and honor. Dignity-based cultures apply formalized, absolute, timelessly-universal moral rules and/or cost-benefit analysis.  Honor-based cultures apply informal, contextually-bound, moral codes shaped by tradition. Many small-scale, male-dominated, honor-based cultures in the West have survived; most notably via: police and fire departments, sports teams (hockey) and urban gangs. I would have liked to see a bit more comparison between European and American dignity cultures and why U.S. culture has become more “risk averse,” a bit more on the role of the mass media in promulgating “dignity” and thwarting “honor,” and more evolutionary psychology. Nevertheless, this is a top-notch ethics textbook that both students and scholars will enjoy. It’s a priority acquisition for all colleges and universities that teach ethics and philosophy.

Reviewed for Choice Magazine by:
Ronald F. White, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Mount St. Joseph University

Friday, April 13, 2018

Review of Jeremy Sherman's, Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The Emergence and Nature of Selves

Jeremy Sherman, Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The Emergence and Nature of Selves (Columbia University Press: 2017)

Reviewed for Choice Magazine by Ronald F. White
In this book Jeremy Sherman, a former student of noted philosopher/scientist Terrence Deacon, explains and expands upon Deacon’s book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2012).  While Sherman’s book is well-written and (for the most part) jargon-free, it is not suitable for students or the general public. Here are four reasons why: 1.) Sherman stipulates complex definitions for many common words; especially “selves” and “aims.” Then he addresses the nature and origins of both selves and aims, via evolutionary theory. That’s a lot. 2.) The title implies an alternative to Cartesian two-sided interactionism, often referred to as the “ghost in the machine hypothesis.” He suggests that his selves/aims model avoids the traditional mind-body problem by redefining “ghost” and “machine” in light of evolution. That’s a lot too! 3.) Much of this book also addresses the historically-puzzling concepts of teleological, teleonomic, and teleodynamics. That’s a lot. 4.) Sherman’s closing argument, attempts to carve out theoretical space for values, in a world of evolutionary facts, which is a lot and worthy of its own book. While we can all appreciate the effort behind this book, it is way too ambitious, and complex to recommend as a textbook in philosophy or evolutionary biology.                     

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Reading #10: Ethics of Reproductive Technologies


In recent years many reproductive technologies have proven to be morally and/or legally controversial: abortion drugs, genetic testing and genetic engineering (for diseases, disabilities, or enhancement), embryonic stem cell research, fetal and/or infant sex change operations, reproductive cloning, and the artificial uterus. Most of these technologies are still in the developmental stage and will be used in conjunction with genetic engineering. There are three lines of argument: natural law (all reproductive technologies are morally unacceptable) libertarianism (all voluntary reproductive technologies are morally acceptable), and a variety of moderate views (some technologies are morally acceptable and some are not acceptable).

Natural Law.

In Health Care Ethics, the Natural Law Theory of Ethics is ultimately based on the idea that "life is a gift from God," and that "What is natural is good." After all, God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and good. He created a universe imbued with purpose. Hence all biological systems are imbued with divine purpose: the purpose of eyes=to see, nose=smell, sex organs=make babies. Since the Middle Ages, the traditional view of the Roman Catholic Church has been that we all have a "duty to reproduce;" and that reproduction must be accomplished via sexual intercourse between married men and women.  Therefore the only acceptable reproductive technologies make sexual intercourse between husbands and wives more efficient. Any technology that replaces sexual intercourse is morally unacceptable. Any technology that deliberately interrupts that process including "artificial contraception" (condoms, birth control pills, and or abortion) is unacceptable. And any technology that enables humans to alter the outcome of that natural process, such choosing sex, eye color, height, weight. Intervention is permitted only cases where a fetal disease might be cured. In general, the Roman Catholic Church argues that most reproductive technologies are immoral and ought to be illegal.   


Libertarians argue that individuals have a moral and/or legal right to access any technologies they choose, and that governments ought to neither force us to employ these technologies nor prevent us from employing them. In short, "anything goes." Among libertarians there is disagreement over the moral status for the fetuses at various stages of development, therefore not all libertarians defend the right to choose abortion. 

Moderate Views

There are many moderate views that fall midway between extreme conservative and extreme libertarian view. Some accept or reject these technologies based on social utility, and cite utility ratios reflecting costs and benefits as foundational. Some utilitarians embrace short-term utility, others embrace long-term utility... or "slippery slope" arguments.    


Let's take a look at a few contemporary issues: abortion drugs, genetic testing and/or engineering, cloning, artificial uterus.

Abortion drugs

Since the 1970s, the primary abortive technique in the United States has involve a surgical technique that removes the embryo or  fetus from the uterus. This technique has been relegated to specifically designed clinics that specialize in that technique. In recent years, most of these clinics have been regulated out of business. Therefore, if abortion survives this regulatory onslaught, it will no-doubt involve the use of abortifacient drugs. Many of these drugs walk a fine line between contraception and abortion. The most common contraceptive/abortive drugs prevent implantation of the zygote within the uterus. Issues include whether these drugs ought to legally require a prescription from  a physician (and/or why or why not?), whether these drugs ought to be sold "over (or under)-the counter" (and/or why or why not?),  age restrictions on purchaser, whether pharmacists and/or cashiers ought to refuse to sell these drugs for moral and/or religious reasons; and whether these drugs ought to be made available online. 

Genetic Testing and Engineering
Genetic testing of fetuses can serve both therapeutic and non-therapeutic purposes. There is also an overlap with Genetic Engineering... no only for existing fetuses, infants, and adults; but also for future humans or germ-line engineering.  Therapeutic testing is relatively non-controversial. It is often performed in order to treat existing fetuses that suffer from various genetic diseases and/or disabilities. Non-therapeutic testing may involve testing, not to cure a disease, but to enhance (via genetic engineering) the future life of that fetus or testing in order perform euthanasia on an fetus with a painful incurable or untreatable disease. Treatable diseases include some forms of Spina Bifida. Untreatable diseases include Tay-Sachs Disease. Enhancements might include testing for hair color, eye color, height, or sex. Genetic engineering for diseases and/or enhancements involving the germ-line, or future children is problematic, given that future generations cannot consent to research or treatment.    


Cloning is a reproductive technology designed to create living things without the unification of ova and sperm. It usually involves the creation of an offspring genetically identical to the aspiring parent. Although no humans have been cloned (as of yet) many mammals have been cloned, especially in other countries; especially pets (usually dogs). There are two forms of human cloning: research cloning and reproductive cloning. The main arguments against reproductive cloning point to a "slippery slope" of potentially negative consequences. The moral status of clones in comparison to the original person has also drawn controversy.    

Artificial Uterus

Scientists have been developing an artificial uterus for many years. Many technologies already available in neonatal intensive care units are essentially late-term artificial uteruses; primarily respiratory, circulatory, and nutritive technologies. The goal is for NICUs to be able to nurture an embryo to an infant within an artificial environment. There are many arguments for and against their development. Most arguments against come from natural law theorists that argue that they represent a "slippery slope," into future where sexual intercourse and women carrying babies become obsolete, thus undermining human nature. Defenders argue that its the inevitable outcome of biomedical research designed to cure the "disease," of infertility.


In this course you may defend either Natural Law, Libertarianism and/or Utility; however, you MUST present arguments for/against. You many not simply invoke the authority of moral and/or religious experts.  

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Andrew Pilsch, Transhumanism: Evolutionary Futurism and the Human Technologies of Utopia (University of Minnesota Press: 2017) Reviewed by: Ronald F. White, for Choice Magazine

This expensive book ($108) is intended to serve a small, but dedicated group of scholars engaged in research on “transhumanism;” a subject that enjoyed popularity in the 1980s and 1990s. Transhumanists are optimistic futurists who welcome recent scientific and technological advancements in: “neuroscience, neuropharmacology, life-extension, nanotechnology, artificial ultraintelligence,   and space habitation.” (p.1)  Most transhumanists are also devoted fans of science fiction and/or spiritualism. Philosophers have long-argued that the very concept of transhumanism is vague or vacuous and that there has always been (and always will be) both defenders and critics of present and future technology. Critics of transhumanism argue that unchecked, free-wheeling scientific and/or technological advancement threatens not only the future of humanity, but also the future of the entire planet. Therefore, they argue, government must play a role in controlling that advancement: Keep that genie in the bottle! For better or worse, this scholarly work is rife with “isms” that are offered in comparison and contrast to “transhumanism,” including: neoliberalism, futurism, utopianism, post-humanism, evolutionary utopianism, and xenofeminism. With 200 pages of scholarly text, it is fully documented with over 600 footnotes, citing mostly of books and journal articles published in the 1980s and 1990s. By all measures, this is a book intended for a rather narrow community of scholars. There is no obvious attempt to recruit new transhumanist scholars, no appeal to a popular audience, nor is it intended to serve as an undergraduate or graduate textbook.