More Silliness About Scientism, Part Two

I had originally intended to devote this post to discussing some of the minutiae in Massimo Pigliucci’s essay. In light of some of the comments on the previous post, however, I’ve decided it would be more useful to speak generally about why I get so annoyed when charges of scientism are casually thrown around.

I actually agree with some of Pigliucci’s specific criticism’s of Krauss. For example, in his exchange with Julian Baggini, Krauss said this:

Ultimately, I think our understanding of neurobiology and evolutionary biology and psychology will reduce our understanding of morality to some well-defined biological constructs.

Yep, that’s pretty bad. I’m not sure why the notion that morality must be entirely a scientific question has become a thing among people like Krauss and Sam Harris. Surely it’s just obvious that you need something more than scientific facts alone to resolve moral questions. If you think of any moral question that actually causes controversy, it is clear that the debate is never primarily about facts. It’s about the different weights to assign to competing values, and no amount of data can tell you how to assign those weights. Science obviously informs moral reasoning, and the distance between is and ought is often very small, but they are separate nonetheless.

But here’s the thing. Usually when someone makes a statement you think is mistaken, the proper response is, “He’s wrong! Here’s why…” You don’t normally accuse him of being in thrall to an ism. That’s a totally different level of criticism. That’s saying the person is not just wrong, but he is in some way deluded. He has sacrificed his good judgment in the service of a blinkered ideology. It’s a criticism of his character as much as it is of his opinions.

Also, invariably in this context, it seems out of all proportion to the provocation. Politely suggesting that Krauss be a bit more nuanced in his discussions of morality seems sufficient here. Pointing a finger and shrieking “Scientism!” seems excessive. If E. O. Wilson or Alexander Rosenberg get a little too enthusiastic about reductionism (and I’m not saying they do), then just point out the error and move on. Charging them with promoting a blinkered, anti-humanistic, ideology just seems uncalled for, and frankly kind of dickish.

If that were the only problem, though, I wouldn’t really care. It’s just that sometimes I take a break from doing this blog to look around, and what I see is a country devouring itself in irrationality. When I think about annoying things that debase the level of moral discourse in our society, people being overenthusiastic about science is not what comes to mind. Instead I think of people being ignorant of relevant scientific facts, or people relying on religious approaches to morality. Those are the real threats. Nobody is making bad decisions because they think moral reasoning will eventually be done by examining brain scans. But lots of people are making bad decisions based on scientific ignorance, or because they are applying nonscientific ways of thinking.

In fighting those threats, it doesn’t help to have philosophers inventing novel reasons for being contemptuous of science or scientists. It especially doesn’t help when a handful of dubious statements from a small number of writers in a few obscure books get presented as an all out attack on the humanities, from scientists so arrogant they think anything that isn’t science is useless. My objection here is the same as the one I explored in this recent post, in which I criticized philosopher John Dupre for using hyperbolic language, of a sort that would be helpful to creationists, when the arguments he was making did not merit any such language. Such is the case here, albeit on a smaller scale.

The humanities are under attack, but not because of anything scientists are doing. It certainly has nothing to do with anything Philip Kitcher discussed in this article for The New Republic. (That was the one where he made the strange argument that scientism is false because the humanities are much more like sciences than is sometimes acknowledged, as we have discussed.)

No, the real threat is the corporate mindset that has largely taken over in academe. Cash-strapped schools are practically competing with each other to see who can cut the humanities more quickly. Do you see any scientists celebrating this development? Even one? Is there even one single scientist cheering the budget slashers on the grounds that schools are finally getting their priorities straight? Of course not. So why the zeal to turn any slight against philosophy into the leading edge of a massive anti-humanities campaign? Why are some humanities professors looking for imaginary enemies to fight, when they have so many real ones to deal with?

There is no threat from scientism. None. This country is in absolutely no danger of putting too much reliance on science, and it is not scientists who think the humanities have no value. So knock it off!

Comments

  1. #1 James W
    September 21, 2012

    Right on!

    It seems to me that this whole thing could be resolved if people on the “Omg! Scientism!!!!!!” side could read the people on the scientific side with a little more charity, and understand that when scientists occasionally say something that overreaches, that their point is not to denigrate maths or the arts, but to defend us against the fuzzy, woolly, religious thinking that infects our society. So perhaps people could read you, or Coyne or Dawkins and, before reacting in horror, say to themselves “What could this mean, if I first assume the writer does not hate the humanities?”.

    But I think there is an imaginary and one sided turf war going on. I (a scientist in spirit, if not occupation) might say “Moral conclusions should be reached through a scientific process”. Now, some philosophers are hearing “I’m coming for your job!!!!!!!!”, while what I really mean is just that, its still your job, but my opinion on it is that if you are doing it correctly, you can’t ignore facts and rely on made-up bullshit. Which you probably agree with already.

  2. #2 TJR
    September 21, 2012

    Indeed. The word “science” can clearly be interpreted in a very broad sense (rational and empirical enquiry) or a very narrow sense (what people in white coats do).

    The whole argument seems to revolve around the fact that almost everyone uses a slightly different definition along this scale, but some people then pretend not to know this and argue as though everyone has the same definition. Or alternatively people argue that everyone should have the same (i.e. their) definition.

  3. #3 couchloc
    September 21, 2012

    It’s a little strange the way this is characterized is that it’s philosophers who are being “kind of dickish” in this context, as if they’re going out of their way to cause this issue. After all, they see themselves as *reacting* to what are seen as dickish statements by others:

    “Philosophy is dead.” –Steven Hawking

    “Science can determine moral values” and (“by the way, I don’t care to discuss any real moral philosophy with experts on this issue b/c I find it all boring”) — Sam Harris

    “Philosophy used to be a field that had content” and “I shouldn’t have to reply to some moronic philosopher about my views” — L. Krauss

    “The time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.” — E. O. Wilson

    If it is suggested these statements occur “in a few obscure books,” does it matter that these people appear on the NYT best sellers list, one is the world’s leading physicist, another a pulitzer prize winning biologist, another the darling of the atheist movement? We’re not talking about obscure figures here but pretty important people that get read a lot. Maybe the problem is, really, that science needs to do a better job in its housekeeping, and not that it’s the responsibility of philosophers “to react politely” to such statements (this is not to deny I’m in agreement with you that I wish this whole issue would just go away.)

    Also, nobody I know thinks the problem facing the humanities is caused by scientists and we’re entirely in agreement about the corporatization issue. So I don’t know why you’re bringing that up. The truth is all sorts of fields are being affected by corporatization, not just the humanities (economics, journalism, visual arts, etc.)

    http://www.emorywheel.com/college-downsizes-departments-phases-out-programs-faculty-staff/

  4. #4 eric
    September 21, 2012

    Couchloc:

    It’s a little strange the way this is characterized is that it’s philosophers who are being “kind of dickish” in this context, as if they’re going out of their way to cause this issue.

    I thought Jason’s point was pretty clear. If philosophers want to argue in papers, books, NYT editorials, etc. that Krauss is wrong, more power to them. But responding to Krauss’ statements by saying “scientism is widespread in biology/physics/chemistry” is dickish.

    Maybe the point will be clearer if we try an example without as much emotional baggage. I happen to think Ward Churchill was wrong in saying everyone in the Twin Towers were ‘little Eichmanns.’ But I don’t respond to his claim by saying “most ethnic studies professors are insensitve bigots.” That would be a jerk move, don’t you agree?

  5. #5 Verbose Stoic
    September 21, 2012

    But here’s the thing. Usually when someone makes a statement you think is mistaken, the proper response is, “He’s wrong! Here’s why…” You don’t normally accuse him of being in thrall to an ism. That’s a totally different level of criticism. That’s saying the person is not just wrong, but he is in some way deluded. He has sacrificed his good judgment in the service of a blinkered ideology. It’s a criticism of his character as much as it is of his opinions.

    No. What those philosophers are doing is criticizing what they perceive to be a specific worldview, and one that they think is wrong. Scientism is not used perjoratively as just an insult, but is used perjoratively because it represents a worldview that most philosophers and people in the humanities think is wrong, and obviously so. And it gets criticized, then, in the same manner as reductionism — defined as the position that all interesting questions in most fields can be reduced to specific sciences — gets criticized. Why this blows up is that most of those accused of scientism either redefine science to include everything — which, to my mind, is a form of scientism — or insist that scientism as a worldview is not wrong, but is right.

    Yep, that’s pretty bad. I’m not sure why the notion that morality must be entirely a scientific question has become a thing among people like Krauss and Sam Harris. Surely it’s just obvious that you need something more than scientific facts alone to resolve moral questions. If you think of any moral question that actually causes controversy, it is clear that the debate is never primarily about facts. It’s about the different weights to assign to competing values, and no amount of data can tell you how to assign those weights. Science obviously informs moral reasoning, and the distance between is and ought is often very small, but they are separate nonetheless.

    What I’ll say here is that this would mean that you DON’T subscribe to a scientistic worldview, and so might be just wrong. Your comments before about not caring what the one true way of knowing is called but that it might be convenient to call it science again is not scientistic, although I think it wrong. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t fair changes of scientism.

    (My definitions of scientism are here: http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/scientism-101-scientism/ . I did a full series on scientism a while ago, which might be of interest).

    My objection here is the same as the one I explored in this recent post, in which I criticized philosopher John Dupre for using hyperbolic language, of a sort that would be helpful to creationists, when the arguments he was making did not merit any such language. Such is the case here, albeit on a smaller scale.

    But I think that that’s probably also the main push here: those being accused of scientism start with the hyperbole of “Science is the only way of knowing” and then when challenged on it act like they’re defending a worldview … and so the response is in kind.

    The main issue with things like what Hawking, Krauss and Harris are saying is that they are wandering in to a long-standing philosophical debate, coming up with an idea, declaring how much better science then is at solving these sorts of problems than philosophy … and then getting upset when the philosophers roll their eyes and tell them that they’ve really done nothing that philosophy didn’t already consider. Philosophy is NOT hostile to science or empiricism. It has considered empirical solutions to these problems for thousands of years. When it says that empirical answers aren’t going to work here, it’s not because they say “Ooh, empiricism, yuck!” but because they’ve TRIED them and they have serious, serious problems. Add in that a lot of the response from scientists to these problems being raised is essentially “Well, you just don’t like empiricism” you can understand the frustration here.

    For example, Jesse Prinz’s book “The Emotional Construction of Morals” is a much better book than Harris’ “The Moral Landscape”, but it certainly relies on and even argues for the use of empirical evidence in determining morality. The difference is that Prinz KNOWS the philosophical problems and tries to address them (not always successfully) while Harris doesn’t seem to know many of them and doesn’t address in any serious way the others even when he DOES seem aware of them. Basically, these works are not necessarily bad science, but are bad philosophy, and surely if you are going to try to solve traditionally philosophical problems doing bad philosophy is not likely to get you anywhere.

  6. #6 DamnYankees
    September 21, 2012

    “Science can determine moral values”

    How is this dickish?

  7. #7 couchloc
    September 21, 2012

    eric,

    “If philosophers want to argue in papers, books, NYT editorials, etc. that Krauss is wrong, more power to them. But responding to Krauss’ statements by saying “scientism is widespread in biology/physics/chemistry” is dickish.”

    Where did I say that? I never said any such thing. I agree your Ward Churchill example would be dickish, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. We are talking about a relatively influential group of people (Hawking, Wilson, etc.) but not all scientists by any means.

    Let me just add that I agree with Jason, when he writes: “I think of people being ignorant of relevant scientific facts, or people relying on religious approaches to morality. Those are the real threats. …..lots of people are making bad decisions based on scientific ignorance, or because they are applying nonscientific ways of thinking.”

    This seems exactly right to me. The approach to this is to encourage people to study science to overcome their ignorance, and philosophy to improve their logical and critical reasoning. And it doesn’t help this endeavor to have really famous scientists (some!) get up on a loudspeaker, and yell, “philosophy is impotent!” “philosophy is dead!” etc. It needs to be seen that the problem described is something scientists and philosophers are in agreement on and we should be working together.

  8. #8 Blaine
    September 21, 2012

    Morality is essentially a constrained optimization problem. Optimizing over what? One’s values. Where do values come from? They are imputed by the biological system not discovered. Science cannot discover what should be valued. There is no platonic world beyond this one legitimizing or guaranteeing the right way to act. All biological systems process signs and attribute significance to them. When I hear a wolf howl in the forest, the sound has a different meaning to me than when a sheep hears it. It’s the same sign interepreted differently by two different biological systems. Its the same with morality. Science can only determine matters of fact. It will only point to the brain region and describe the neural net system that determines moral behavior but it can never determine what should be valued. There will always be the ugly ditch between fact and value.

    Some of you might find Patricia Churchland’s view of Sam Harris’s moronic book on morality.

    ““Sam Harris has this vision that once
    neuroscience is much more developed then
    neuroscientists will be able to tell us what things
    are right or wrong, or at least what things are
    conducive to well-being and not. But even if you
    cast it in that way, that’s pretty optimistic – or
    pessimistic, depending on your point of view.
    Different people even within a culture, even
    within a family, have different views about what
    constitutes their own well-being. Some people
    like to live out in the bush like hermits and dig
    in the ground and shoot deer for resources, and
    other people can’t countenance a life that isn’t in
    the city, in the mix of cultural wonderfulness. So
    people have fundamentally different ideas about
    what constitutes well-being.
    “I think Sam is just a child when it comes
    addressing morality. I think he hasn’t got a clue.
    And I think part of the reason that he kind of
    ran amuck on all this is that, as you and I well
    know, trashing religion is like shooting fi sh in a
    barrel. If Chris Hitchens can just sort of slap it
    off in an afternoon then any moderately sensible
    person can do the same. He wrote that book in
    a very clear way although there were lots of very
    disturbing things in it. I think he thought that,
    heck, it’s not that hard to fi gure these things out.
    Morality: how hard can that be? Religion was
    dead easy. And it’s just many orders of magnitude
    more diffi cult.” http://www.thephilosophersmagazine.com/TPM/article/view/Churchland/11706

  9. #9 JollyRancher
    September 21, 2012

    With regards to the whole corporatization of things: I don’t doubt that such a mindset is the enemy of the humanities, and, indeed, even the broader goals of science insofar as they consist of searching for the truth, irrespective of whether or not they provide any particular instrumental value to society.

    But as others have mentioned, I don’t think the issue boils down to one of turf wars; I feel the concern motivating many of these charges of scientism are, as Verbose Stoic mentioned, about worldviews, and how pervasively any particular worldview inevitably influences your way of approaching an issue. I don’t think the term scientism should be cast around lightly, nor that it should be used to validate religious baggage, but I don’t think most (non-religious) users of the term are apologists for religion; rather, I think what many are objecting to is a kind of, to put it frankly, ham-fisted approach to ethical/metaphysical/existential etc… questions, combined with a kind of smug dismissal of critiques of that approach SIMPLY ON THE GROUNDS THAT THEY ARE NOT SCIENTIFIC( in the sense of a purely data-driven scientific rebuttal of hypothesis x), as if challenging the logic of a particular epistemological framework, or pointing out an equivocation, or making a conceptual distinction are nothing but instances of data-empty superfluous masturbatory linguistic obfuscation.
    As much as he’s been a whipping boy of late, the Krauss affair is a good example of this. It ultimately boiled down to Albert simply pointing out that Krauss was equivocating on nothing (likely in an attempt to implicitly argue against religion) in a way even any moderately robust reflection on what nothing really means would dispel. His response was to meltdown (somewhat understandably given the acidity of Albert’s review), blast an entire field(which transcends its’ particular academic manifestation), and basically assert in some vague way that his argument was empirical, that Albert should just sit down and shut up because he didn’t have any data, or alternative hypothesis or SCIENTIFIC rebuttal to his argument or whatever , all the while ignoring that the whole Meta-point Albert was making was about science itself; namely, that it really reduces to descriptions of behaviour in generalized mathematical terms, and that the only way to “explain” how the fundamental stuff of existence (be it quantum fields or strings or whatever) is to equivocate between nothing and quantum vacuum states that from the point of view of our limited senses look like “nothing”, even though it has predispositions and properties and whatnot. Given the point he was making, it simply makes no sense, and betrays a basic misunderstanding of his entire criticism to simply ask ”where is the empirical evidence for this assertion”, which many people, given my reading of comments on a variety of blogs, are prone to do.

    Finally, while you’ll get no qualms from me that an excess of scientific and rational thinking in public/private life is not our problem, I do think there are two points worth considering in this context. One: I venture to suggest that what makes many throwers of the scientism label uncomfortable is precisely the notion that given people’s penchant for ideologies and quick-fix metaphysical schemes, we should strive to avoid replacing it with anything that promises us a too easy answer to everything, even science, especially if this scheme succeeds in doing so at the cost of simply shrinking the world down to size so that the scheme can accommodate it, rather than taking the intellectually honest route of recognizing the importance of a plurality of methodologies for complex questions in a complex world.
    Two: I suspect to those making the accusations of Scientism, it looks to them as if people are trying to turn science into precisely that kind of presumptuous metaphysical scheme we should be striving to avoid. We should never think we “have it all figured out” and that all that’s left to do is fill in the details, or follow a particular formalized mechanical method, on the assumption that it works in all contexts, and that we don’t need to ask Meta-questions about that method, because anything that falls outside of it is, ipso facto, a non question, unworthy of consideration because it isn’t restricted to (in principle or simply at the moment) “evidence based” resolution.

  10. #10 eric
    September 21, 2012

    couchloc:

    [eric]“If philosophers want to argue in papers, books, NYT editorials, etc. that Krauss is wrong, more power to them. But responding to Krauss’ statements by saying “scientism is widespread in biology/physics/chemistry” is dickish.”

    [chouchloc]Where did I say that?

    You didn’t. That is my paraphrasing of Jason’s point, which you seem to be arguing against.

    We are talking about a relatively influential group of people (Hawking, Wilson, etc.) but not all scientists by any means.

    I’m glad, I agree. But remember that in Part One, we have Pigliucci saying “This appears to be a widespread assumption among scientists…” To me, that’s unwarranted. Its a jerk move, because its an obvious mischaracterization to attribute any strong or contentious form of scientism to scientists as a group. Scientists as a group can probably be legitimately accused of holding light or weak form of scientisim (as in: science is the best way we currently know of to study the physical world), but once you start including in “scientism” stuff like rejection of all non-science fields or rejection in principle of any other possible ways of knowing, the number of people you can credibly call scientismists drops precipitously.

    Now that I reread Jason’s Part Two post, though, I see he’s making a slightly different point. He’s making the point that the label really belongs only to those who are making serious reasoning errors, who show an obvious and irrational bias. He’s saying we should not throw that label at all and sundry scientists who simply disagree with the speaker on the value of one or more non-scientific disciplines. To draw an analogy with another one of Jason’s recent posts – just as not all criticisms of Israel indicate antisemitism, not all criticisms of a humanity by a scientist indicate scientism.

  11. #11 couchloc
    September 21, 2012

    eric,

    First, if you look at the context of the quote you refer to from Massimo (“This appears to be a widespread assumption among scientists…..”) he is referring to Premise 1 of his argument. But that premise is not equivalent to scientism. Scientism comes in at Premise 2. So I’m not sure you’re reading Massimo correctly. In any case, if he did say something like “the majority of scientists are committed to scientism” I would disagree, and I have not defended this claim.

    Second, on your last paragraph. Nobody I know thinks that scientists who criticize some area of the humanities are thereby guilty of scientism. If some area of history, or philosophy, or literature, or whatever makes claims that are mistaken or questionable, then they’re fair game. The concern philosophers have has never been, “You scientists shouldn’t ever say anything mean about us, but always speak in lofty tones.” The problem is when a scientist like Krauss makes unsupported, irresponsible, or disparaging generalizations about the field that are false. If Krauss had simply said, “Look, I think there are some areas of philosophy related to theology that are problematic, and disagree with it vehemently” we wouldn’t be talking about this. But this is not what is going on.

  12. #12 Dan L.
    September 21, 2012

    I’m not sure why the notion that morality must be entirely a scientific question has become a thing among people like Krauss and Sam Harris. Surely it’s just obvious that you need something more than scientific facts alone to resolve moral questions. If you think of any moral question that actually causes controversy, it is clear that the debate is never primarily about facts. It’s about the different weights to assign to competing values, and no amount of data can tell you how to assign those weights.

    The problem with this perspective, Jason, is that you’re trying to look at morality from the “inside” — that is, from the perspective of a creature with moral instincts.

    What I think Krauss is trying to say is that moral reasoning takes place in the world according to a specific set of rules and the preconditions and material correlates of those rules can be studied. That is, if moral reasoning is an evolutionary adaptation then there’s at least the possibility that it could be studied like any other evolutionary adaptation, including the eye.

    The analogy is pretty good actually. You cannot predict the structure of the eye on the basis of its functionality — in just the same way that you cannot predict moral decisions purely on the basis of the facts informing those decisions. In both cases, the factual constraints restrict the class of possible solutions but don’t determine the solution. The behavior of photons informs but does not dictate the structure of the eye. The necessities of human survival and happiness likewise don’t dictate but do constrain the structure of moral reasoning.

    But this lack of determination does not prevent us from studying the eye in situ; nor does it prevent us from studying moral reasoning as a biological phenomenon (or, for that matter, as a cultural one).

    We cannot use science to divine an abstract and objective set of moral values, but there’s no reason to since there’s so little reason to believe that’s how morality works in the first place. Moral reasoning seems to be a biological process and, given that, we can study it and come to an understanding of it exactly as we study other biological behaviors and structures and understand them.

    So it’s not a matter of “resolving moral questions.” In fact, there’s no guarantee that moral questions are the sorts of things that can be resolved — that guarantee would require that sort of abstract, God-given objective morality insisted upon by VS and other neoscholastics. Rather, it’s about understanding how the human organism goes about trying to resolve moral questions.

    Honestly, I feel it’s quite obvious that moral reasoning is something that happens in the world and thus can be studied like pretty much any other phenomenon happening in the world. So I suspect we must be approaching this question from different frames. Would you agree that morality can be studied and understood as I’ve described, as a biological adaptation? Or do you think there’s necessarily something spooky and magical about it?

  13. #13 Dan L.
    September 21, 2012

    Again, those doubting the necessity of empirical investigation in the establishment of knowledge are invited to provide even one single example of reliable knowledge established without empirical investigation.

  14. #14 eric
    September 21, 2012

    chouchloc – but Krauss is an easy target, because he probably fits your description of scientismist, and nobody seems to be disputing that too strongly. The issue comes when someone extrapolates from Krauss to scientists. John Haught, for instance, does not (just?) accuse Krauss of scientism, he accuses all gnu atheists of scientism (see here for an excerpt). And Pigliucci says he is worried about the trend of scientism taking over “the entire secular movement” (see here). Does that sound like someone agreeing with you about there being just a few bad apples?

    So, the folks throwing around the scientism label are doing so quite liberally. You might not be, I get that. But Jason has a legitimate point when he goes after someone like Haught or Pigliucci for painting with a broad brush.

  15. #15 couchloc
    September 21, 2012

    Dan L: “Would you agree that morality can be studied and understood as I’ve described, as a biological adaptation? Or do you think there’s necessarily something spooky and magical about it?”

    Here is a good example of the kind of poor reasoning one finds in this area. This is clearly a false dilemma. This is your conception of the alternatives in argumentative space about morality:

    Either you accept what biology says, or your believe magic.

    Seriously?

  16. #16 Dan L.
    September 21, 2012

    @couchloc:

    Then take it as an invitation to provide the third way, oh Wise and Mighty couchloc. Or just respond to the challenge I’ve already given you.

  17. #17 couchloc
    September 21, 2012

    eric, Massimo writes…..”This trend includes writings by prominent scientists and secularists…..”

    This is not equivalent to saying “this trend is widespread among scientists.” I think you are attributing too much to his words here. He’s trying to call out a particular group of individuals who seem to be getting a bit enthusiastic about things.

  18. #18 Dan L.
    September 21, 2012

    Incidentally, I already provided that third way, but couchloc was so eager to find fault with my account that he skipped that part.

    To assume that there’s such a thing as “moral truths” in the sense that Jason seems to mean is to essentially assert that there is such a thing as objective morality…that in Jason’s words there is always a way of “resolving moral questions.” Of course, I think there’s something spooky and magical about the idea of “objective morality” but this is probably what couchloc would prefer I believed.

    I’m asserting that moral reasoning is not a matter of trying to determine objective rules that probably don’t exist in the first place but of studying the only instantiation of moral reasoning we’ve witnessed: human beings reasoning about morality in the real world. If human beings make moral decisions as a result of how their brains are put together then it would stand to reason that we can scientifically investigate the basis of moral reasoning as much as we could the eye. If not, there must be some principle or entity preventing us from studying the basis of moral reasoning in the brain.

    By Pigliucci’s definition of supernatural, this principle or entity would absolutely qualify as supernatural: a force or entity that defies empirical investigation.

  19. #19 MNb
    September 21, 2012

    @Dan L 3:54 “those doubting ….”
    While I don’t doubt this I can’t resist the challenge. Derivatives in math. The correct evaluation of an opening line in chess, eg 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6.

  20. #20 Dan L.
    September 21, 2012

    @MNb:

    First of all, it’s not clear how either of those things constitutes “reliable knowledge.” More importantly, mathematical “truths” are derived from axioms that are assumed to be true; to demonstrate the absolute truth of the theorem you must also demonstrate the absolute truth of the axioms. If you have a way of doing so other than empirical investigation I would love to hear it.

    Also, “derivatives” are not a discovery about mathematics, they are entities defined within the context of mathematics. For obvious reasons I am not accepting definitions as examples of reliable knowledge.

  21. #21 couchloc
    September 21, 2012

    Dan L., I’m not unaware of your third way and was aware that, yes, the answer was already given in Jason’s article. If you read carefully, he says “you cannot derive ought from is” (or something close). I take it this claim is true, but not empirically known. The reason I’m uninterested in your challenge is that this post is not about “moral objectivism” but scientism and its role in discussions going on.

  22. #22 Dan L.
    September 21, 2012

    @couchloc:

    The challenge in question is a challenge to produce even one example of reliable knowledge that is produced without reference to empirical investigation, so it is indeed very relevant to scientific investigation.

    On the “ought vs. is” question, I regard this as a red herring with respect to the question of whether “science can be used to understand morality.” Science need only explain how “oughts” are produced, not to demonstrate that the “oughts” are true or false in any absolute sense. In fact, I doubt that “oughts” are true or false in any absolute sense and I’ve never been given any credible reason to believe otherwise.

    So it seems your reaction was a result of not understanding my argument. What a surprise.

  23. #23 Dan L.
    September 21, 2012

    Also, how is “you can’t get ought from is” non-empirical? Wasn’t it figured out by observing the distinction between assertions of fact and assertions of morality? If it’s not demonstrated empirically then what is the justification for believing it?

  24. #24 Verbose Stoic
    September 21, 2012

    Dan L.,

    More importantly, mathematical “truths” are derived from axioms that are assumed to be true; to demonstrate the absolute truth of the theorem you must also demonstrate the absolute truth of the axioms. If you have a way of doing so other than empirical investigation I would love to hear it.

    Well, if you are looking for some kind of “absolute truth” and holding that to be the standard, then I don’t think you can name any reliable knowledge that can be gained through EMPIRICAL means; we actually are not justified in trusting that our senses are providing us with anything like how things are in the world. Your trust in your senses is just as axiomatic as anything in mathematics.

    And you are insisting that the truth of mathematical terms must be taken from how it describes the actual world. I think most mathematicians would find that odd. Even if the world is not Euclidean, they would say that they certainly know that things are true about it by any definition of “true” worth having. So, what definition of “true” are you using, and how do you plan on justifying it strictly by an appeal to the empirical without being circular?

    I think you’re running into the Positivist’s Petard: you are insisting that the only claims that are justified to the level of knowledge are justified by empirical data, but the claim that the only claims that are justified are justified by empirical data is a claim that, cannot, in fact, be so justified and so, by your own logic, you can’t know. Thus, I invite you to demonstrate that claim empirically. Until you can, I submit the Positivist’s Petard as my example of something I know that I didn’t justify through empirical means.

    . If human beings make moral decisions as a result of how their brains are put together then it would stand to reason that we can scientifically investigate the basis of moral reasoning as much as we could the eye. If not, there must be some principle or entity preventing us from studying the basis of moral reasoning in the brain.

    We can study how humans currently reason morally. What we cannot do is determine how humans OUGHT to reason morally. Is slavery morally wrong? If you look in human brains in the West today, you’ll see that the answer to that question comes up as “Yes”. But if you looked 300 years ago, you’d see that it comes up as “No”. Which is right? Can either be right? When we face new challenges today, challenges that twist our brains into confusing and contradictory knots (see trolley cases for a very simple and direct demonstration of the contradictions our moral reasoning can lead us to), how are we to settle it? Wait and see which ideas happen to survive? You know what our brains DO, but not what they OUGHT to do. So the principle that gets involved here is … the is/ought distinction. And I think I know that one as well … but not empirically in any way that would matter. There’s my second example, then.

    In fact, there’s no guarantee that moral questions are the sorts of things that can be resolved — that guarantee would require that sort of abstract, God-given objective morality insisted upon by VS and other neoscholastics.

    You don’t get to comment on what my morality requires when you refused to go to my blog and look at the one that I worked out that I think is the morality we have, to see if it fits.

    As for the charge of my being a neo-scholastic and holding out for a God-driven morality:

    1) You know I favour Kant and the Stoics, neither of whom used God as a justification for their morality.

    2) The wiki says that the neoscholastics were opposing schools to Kant and Descartes … both people that I favour in general.

    So, even on a skimming this seems a baseless charge, but let’s not fill up Jason’s comment section with what it seems is now a personal vedetta on your part. Come play on my blog. The morality post is here: http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/2012/08/03/virtue-and-vice-ends-and-means/

  25. #25 Verbose Stoic
    September 21, 2012

    Dan L.,

    Also, how is “you can’t get ought from is” non-empirical? Wasn’t it figured out by observing the distinction between assertions of fact and assertions of morality? If it’s not demonstrated empirically then what is the justification for believing it?

    If you’re going to regard things done completely and totally in the mind — turning over what assertions means and how they relate, regardless of their impact on the actual world — as empirical, then you’ve simply defined empirical so broadly that there’s no possible way anyone could ever find a proposition that wasn’t empirical in your sense. But proving your point strictly by defining all possible challengers out of the picture doesn’t strike me as being very scientific … or empirical, for that matter.

  26. #26 Dan L.
    September 21, 2012

    @VS:

    Your trust in your senses is just as axiomatic as anything in mathematics.

    My trust in my senses is not axiomatic. I doubt my senses all the time.

    And you are insisting that the truth of mathematical terms must be taken from how it describes the actual world. I think most mathematicians would find that odd.

    The sense in which mathematical theorems are this: “Given A, B is true.” Euclidean geometry and non-Euclidean geometry cannot simultaneously be true in any absolute sense, but mathematics itself provides no way of adjudicating between rival mathematical systems. I don’t think any mathematician would object to this argument. When we say a theorem is “true”, we mean “it is true under such-and-such mathematical theory.” We cannot determine from first principles which mathematical theories apply to which phenomena in the real world.

    So, what definition of “true” are you using, and how do you plan on justifying it strictly by an appeal to the empirical without being circular?

    Definitions don’t need to be justified empirically for obvious reasons. A “true” proposition would be one which accurately describes a state of affairs in the world. (My definition of “world” includes any supernatural phenomena including God, should these things happen to exist.)

    you are insisting that the only claims that are justified to the level of knowledge are justified by empirical data, but the claim that the only claims that are justified are justified by empirical data is a claim that, cannot, in fact, be so justified and so, by your own logic, you can’t know. Thus, I invite you to demonstrate that claim empirically

    I don’t claim that it’s necessarily true that empiricism is necessary for acquisition of knowledge (not necessarily sufficient, note); this is a provisional belief based on empirical investigation. Specifically, much reliable knowledge about the world has been adduced through empirical investigation; I have yet to have one example provided of knowledge about the world that was not adduced through empirical investigation. The complete absence of such examples suggests, at least to me, that such a thing is not possible.

    What we cannot do is determine how humans OUGHT to reason morally.

    As I’ve already explained, this is a red herring.

    neoscholasticsI was mocking your form of argumentation, not making a broader point about intellectual history.

  27. #27 Blaine
    September 21, 2012

    @ Dan L.:
    “We cannot use science to divine an abstract and objective set of moral values, but there’s no reason to since there’s so little reason to believe that’s how morality works in the first place. Moral reasoning seems to be a biological process and, given that, we can study it and come to an understanding of it exactly as we study other biological behaviors and structures and understand them.

    So it’s not a matter of “resolving moral questions.” In fact, there’s no guarantee that moral questions are the sorts of things that can be resolved — that guarantee would require that sort of abstract, God-given objective morality insisted upon by VS and other neoscholastics. Rather, it’s about understanding how the human organism goes about trying to resolve moral questions.”

    Egg-zactly!!!

    Passe Pigliucci, moral realism is bankrupt.

  28. #28 Dan L.
    September 21, 2012

    If you’re going to regard things done completely and totally in the mind — turning over what assertions means and how they relate, regardless of their impact on the actual world — as empirical, then you’ve simply defined empirical so broadly that there’s no possible way anyone could ever find a proposition that wasn’t empirical in your sense.

    As a good Cartesian skeptic, I believe we only have access to “things done completely and totally in the mind. All sensory experience is mediated through mind. I really have no choice, here. If things that only happen in the mind do not constitute empirical evidence then I must affirm the total nonexistence of empiricism.

    Try putting my argument this way: is it necessarily true that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”, or is that a contingent fact about the universe? If it is a contingent fact then it cannot be derived from first principles and it is clearly empirical. If it’s necessarily true then please provide a proof from first principles.

  29. #29 Dan L.
    September 21, 2012

    There are two senses in which we can talk about deriving moral propositions from factual propositions. I agree with the one you’re talking about: you cannot prove the truth or falsehood of a moral proposition using only factual premises.

    However, if “moral propositions” are facts about the world — for example, if a “moral proposition” is a state of mind and therefore a set of facts about an individual’s brain — then there is a sense in which we can “derive” an ought from an is. The state of mind that corresponds to the moral proposition as well as the preconditions and material causes of that state of mind — these are all facts about the world. And thus, although we cannot necessarily determine the truth or falsehood of the “ought” from this perspective, we can provide a justification or explanation for why that individual believes the moral proposition to be true or false as the case may be. This is what I mean by “understanding morality.”

  30. #30 Verbose Stoic
    September 21, 2012

    Dan L.,

    My trust in my senses is not axiomatic. I doubt my senses all the time.

    But you trust them. What’s your justification for trusting them to describe some kind of “real world”?

    Euclidean geometry and non-Euclidean geometry cannot simultaneously be true in any absolute sense, but mathematics itself provides no way of adjudicating between rival mathematical systems.

    But they can be true in the way most people use the term true. It is true that in a Euclidean system parallel lines never meet, and that in some non-Euclidean ones they do. No one is insisting on this odd sort of “absolute truth” except you.

    Definitions don’t need to be justified empirically for obvious reasons.

    But if you don’t, it’s axiomatic, and then anyone you debate can quite easily simply deny that your definition is right and then there’s no more discussion to be had. That does not seem to be how you approach these issues. Add to that that your stance on empirical justification means that there’s no way for you to EVER know if your definition is the right one — because it becomes unknowable for you — while people without that stance can in fact actually have a definition of truth that we could know correct or incorrect and it would seem that you have a slight problem.

    A “true” proposition would be one which accurately describes a state of affairs in the world.

    Presuming that you mean “in this specific world”, you run into issues with truths about fictional things. For example, it is in a very real sense true that Santa Claus has a white beard, but by your definition we couldn’t actually say that … or, at least, not in any way that didn’t allow for, say, mathematical and geometric propositions to be true in the same sense. So, either you run into major issues or you have to give up the idea that absolute truth is any meaningful standard to hold against things like morality and mathematics.

    I don’t claim that it’s necessarily true that empiricism is necessary for acquisition of knowledge (not necessarily sufficient, note); this is a provisional belief based on empirical investigation. Specifically, much reliable knowledge about the world has been adduced through empirical investigation; I have yet to have one example provided of knowledge about the world that was not adduced through empirical investigation. The complete absence of such examples suggests, at least to me, that such a thing is not possible.

    You use an awful lot of words here to say, basically, that you don’t know it. So let’s get down to brass tacks: do you think that we could EVER know that to be true? If you do, you need to have a way to do that empirically. Do you have one? If not, and if instead it’s just a belief you have that you think is useful, why should anyone care about it? If you say you have no reason to believe it false and I say I have no reason to believe it true (especially since your justification here is a prime example of an inductive fallacy), why should we care about what each others’ beliefs are here? Why is it, under your view, not simply a matter of opinion?

    As I’ve already explained, this is a red herring.

    I’ll accept that as soon as you demonstrate whether slavery is morally right or morally wrong empirically, and tell us whether we, today, should consider it morally right or morally wrong.

  31. #31 Verbose Stoic
    September 21, 2012

    Dan L.,

    And thus, although we cannot necessarily determine the truth or falsehood of the “ought” from this perspective, we can provide a justification or explanation for why that individual believes the moral proposition to be true or false as the case may be. This is what I mean by “understanding morality.”

    Yeah, and no one denies that you can do that, or that those are facts. But we don’t JUST want that. We don’t just want “Dan L. thinks slavery is wrong, and here’s why”. We want “Is Dan L. RIGHT to think that slavery is wrong, and why?”. And that’s firmly in that first category that you admit we can’t get from facts.

    Now, you can be skeptical that those sorts of questions can be answered. God knows you’re in good company. But it isn’t a red herring for the question that we are actually asking, even if we may never be able to answer it.

    As a good Cartesian skeptic, I believe we only have access to “things done completely and totally in the mind. All sensory experience is mediated through mind. I really have no choice, here. If things that only happen in the mind do not constitute empirical evidence then I must affirm the total nonexistence of empiricism.

    Since Descartes was not, in fact, an empiricist, this is a rather bad way to go about defending empiricism, as his skepticism led him to deny empiricism altogether … which is what you admit that you are on the cusp of doing.

    If you want to be skeptical, I suggest you take up Hume instead. He at least was an empiricist, and so you won’t build the tension into your worldview and probably can maintain all of your skepticism. Heck, even Bertrand Russell would be a better choice (see the paper on Science vs Science on my blog; I personally think you’d find John Dewey enlightening, but he’s in some ways less skeptical than Russell was).

    Try putting my argument this way: is it necessarily true that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”, or is that a contingent fact about the universe? If it is a contingent fact then it cannot be derived from first principles and it is clearly empirical. If it’s necessarily true then please provide a proof from first principles.

    See, as usual, here you start into a massive philosophical morass that you may not be able to escape from. I see no reason why contingent facts must be empirical. I also think that we can indeed show it from what it means to be descriptive (an is) and normative (an ought), which is why we ran into this in the first place. Again Hume — the originator of the argument — is a great place to start with that.

  32. #32 Dan L.
    September 21, 2012

    But you trust them. What’s your justification for trusting them to describe some kind of “real world”?

    Define “trust”.

    It is true that in a Euclidean system parallel lines never meet, and that in some non-Euclidean ones they do. No one is insisting on this odd sort of “absolute truth” except you.

    When I say “absolute truth” I’m talking about whether the knowledge is constrained to a synthetic system of rules or whether it applies to the real world. For example, “parallel lines never meet” is true in the same sense that “Sherlock Holmes is a famous private investigator” is true — only with respect to the context in which the proposition is made. If I asked someone in some other context “Is it true that Sherlock Holmes was a famous private investigator” they would probably say “no, he was a fictional private investigator.” If I asked someone who knows a bit about math and physics “Is it true that parallel lines meet” they might say “it’s true in Euclidean geometry, but Einstein showed it’s not really true (i.e. true in the real world). You see why the distinction between “truth in a context” and “true absolutely” (or “true of the universe” or however you’d like to put it) is an important one?

    But if you don’t, it’s axiomatic, and then anyone you debate can quite easily simply deny that your definition is right and then there’s no more discussion to be had.

    Definitions aren’t necessarily axiomatic. For example, I can define the word “tree” to mean any object exhibiting properties X, Y, Z, etc. There need be no such object for me to make such a definition, and the definition is valid whether or not such an object exists. The definition does not entail the existence of the thing defined, or the truth or falsehood of any propositions in which the object of the definition turns up as either subject or object.

    For example, it is in a very real sense true that Santa Claus has a white beard, but by your definition we couldn’t actually say that … or, at least, not in any way that didn’t allow for, say, mathematical and geometric propositions to be true in the same sense.

    Actually, my formulation deals gracefully with this sort of issue. It is not true that Santa Claus has a white beard. It is true that within the context of modern American folklore, Santa Claus is claimed to have a white beard. This is not actually a serious problem.

    So let’s get down to brass tacks: do you think that we could EVER know that to be true? If you do, you need to have a way to do that empirically. Do you have one?

    I just gave one: Bayesian inference on the class of all examples of reliable knowledge. Again, I will happily change my mind as soon as evidence is adduced that knowledge can be derived some other way (from first principles perhaps, whatever that might mean).

    I’ll accept that as soon as you demonstrate whether slavery is morally right or morally wrong empirically, and tell us whether we, today, should consider it morally right or morally wrong.

    You don’t seem to be paying attention to my arguments. I don’t think moral propositions can be directly proved true or false empirically because I don’t think they have absolute truth values in the first place. I explained this very clearly already. I think we can explain why human beings believe that slavery is wrong, and that is what I mean by “explaining morality”.

  33. #33 Dan L.
    September 21, 2012

    Yeah, and no one denies that you can do that, or that those are facts. But we don’t JUST want that. We don’t just want “Dan L. thinks slavery is wrong, and here’s why”. We want “Is Dan L. RIGHT to think that slavery is wrong, and why?”. And that’s firmly in that first category that you admit we can’t get from facts.

    I don’t believe “moral facts” are really facts. In fact, calling them “moral facts” is begging the question. That’s why I’ve been calling them “moral propositions.” Who is “we”, by the way and why should I care what they want?

    Now, you can be skeptical that those sorts of questions can be answered. God knows you’re in good company. But it isn’t a red herring for the question that we are actually asking, even if we may never be able to answer it.

    The question is “can science understand morality.” I answer yes. I claim your objection — that it can’t be used to prove “moral facts” is a red herring because, in fact, “moral facts” do not exist in the first place.

    Since Descartes was not, in fact, an empiricist, this is a rather bad way to go about defending empiricism, as his skepticism led him to deny empiricism altogether … which is what you admit that you are on the cusp of doing.

    Just because I take the same starting point as Descartes does not constrain me to abide by his conclusions. I do not admit I’m “on the cusp” of rejecting empiricism. Stop trying to read my mind, you’re incredibly bad at it.

    See, as usual, here you start into a massive philosophical morass that you may not be able to escape from. I see no reason why contingent facts must be empirical. I also think that we can indeed show it from what it means to be descriptive (an is) and normative (an ought), which is why we ran into this in the first place.

    And as usual, you make tendentious, pompous claims that you can’t actually back up with reasoned argument. If you think contingent facts aren’t necessarily derived through empiricism, name one that isn’t. If you can prove you can’t get ought from is, stop huffing and puffing and just prove it.

  34. #34 couchloc
    September 21, 2012

    Dan L.: “The question is “can science understand morality.” I answer yes. I claim your objection — that it can’t be used to prove “moral facts” is a red herring because, in fact, “moral facts” do not exist in the first place.”

    This is a pretty tendentious way of describing the issue, and why it causes consternation among people interested in understanding morality. In your view, there are no moral facts—fine. But then you say that you want to “understand morality.” What can this mean on your view? What it means is that you want to understand a certain type of behavior—one related to various (nonfactual) claims people make involving ethical terms. So, in fact, what you are trying to understand has nothing to do with morality but merely a particular type of observed behavior among hominids, and there’s not much reason to mark this phenomenon out as “morality” over anything else. What you should really say is that “science can understand a certain speech behavior among hominids.” Your position is misleading in the same way someone says: “Witches don’t exist.” But then goes on to say “Science can understand witches.” You are not really trying to understand morality but denying its existence and I think it would help to state that.

  35. #35 Dan L.
    September 21, 2012

    @couchloc:

    So, in fact, what you are trying to understand has nothing to do with morality but merely a particular type of observed behavior among hominids, and there’s not much reason to mark this phenomenon out as “morality” over anything else.

    This is begging the question about what morality actually is. You obviously have some preconceived notion of morality and you’re trying to force me to consent to this implicit ontological commitment. From my perspective, we simply disagree about the fundamental nature of morality. You think it is something distinct from the sorts of speech and actions taken by human beings that we associate with the word “morality” and I simply do not agree.

    First: tell me what, exactly, you think morality is. Then give me a good reason to agree with you.

  36. #36 Dan L.
    September 21, 2012

    @couchloc:

    Your witch analogy is a good one, incidentally. If I were to consent to traditional concepts of witchcraft, I’d have to concede that witches don’t exist and because they don’t exist science can’t investigate them. But although traditional concepts of witchcraft don’t apply to anything in the physical world, there are and have been many people who actually practice witchcraft.

    Specific aspects of the practice of witchcraft CAN be explained scientifically: healing rituals work because of the placebo effect; rituals make them work better because that’s how placebos work (four sugar pills has a bigger clinical effect than two sugar pills). The idea of “riding a broomstick” comes from the fact that in medieval Europe, female practitioners of ritual magic would apply psychoactive substances vaginally with a rounded piece of wood. The flying was metaphorical but the piece of wood between the legs was very real.

  37. #37 couchloc
    September 21, 2012

    I don’t think I’m begging the question, although I see why you say that. My complaint doesn’t depend on my defending some particular conception of morality itself. I’m simply suggesting that there’s something misleading about you describing your account as “a scientific understanding of morality,” since on your own account there are “no moral facts.” So describing your project as about “morality” I find misleading. What your project really concerns is “understanding some behaviors which involve the use of ethical terms” or some such. It would be good to make this clear, since your position really seems to devolve into the denial of any morality whatsover. You’re not really “explaining morality” but “explaining it away.”

  38. #38 Dan L.
    September 21, 2012

    @couchloc:

    I’m under no obligation to change my understanding of what “morality” means to suit your preconceptions. Sorry.

    But while I’m replying could I just compare our respective approaches to witchcraft and then try to extrapolate to morality? You come at the problem with a preconceived idea of what “witchcraft” means, you look around, and you don’t see anything that conforms to your preconceptions. Thus, you declare that it doesn’t exist…by definition as it were.

    My approach — the empirical, scientistic approach — goes like this: ask a witch. When I actually look for empirical evidence for witchcraft, I find that “witchcraft” refers various folklores loosely based on a medieval practice, the medieval practice itself, and various modern practices that do indeed draw on the medieval practices. I learn that witch trials were extremely rare in the early middle ages, mostly occurring during the renaissance and enlightenment (Salem, MA, was not an especially late one). I learn that they resulted largely from a church propaganda campaign to stamp out small heresies.

    Now, I’m not sure my “theory” of witchcraft is correct — I’m sure there are historically-inclined wiccans who would correct me on various points. But I would argue that my account of witchcraft is more interesting, nuanced, and open-minded than yours. If that’s the result of scientism then tell me again what’s wrong with it?

    Now you’re approaching morality with some preconceived notion of what it is rather than looking at the world to figure out what it is. Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out what “morality” means on the basis of empirical evidence about it. But if your preconceptions, the “morality” that you’re looking for doesn’t actually exist then your theory of morality is up a creek without a paddle. If my theory of morality is wrong, it’s OK — I can use the failure to revise my theory in light of the evidence I’ve already examined. (If you hadn’t heard about this strategy, it’s called the “scientific method”.)

  39. #39 Collin "Cheesehead" Brendemuehl
    September 22, 2012

    Jason is precisely correct in this:
    “It’s about the different weights to assign to competing values, and no amount of data can tell you how to assign those weights.”
    How does one give weight?
    To conflate “science” and “scientism” is to completely miss the point. How can science inform morality without having a moral framework? That is a metaphysical — “religious” — concept. else the question is begged.

    I am amazed at what amounts to “education” these days.

  40. #40 Dan L.
    September 22, 2012

    How can science inform morality without having a moral framework?

    An example. Jonathan Haidt has argued (convincingly in my view) that most moral decisions are made on the basis of emotional responses and that the reasons people give for those moral responses are post facto generalizations. If this is indeed true then it’s important to realize this in the process of making moral decisions. It tells me I should doubt my first impulse when confronted with a moral dilemma because my first impulse will probably be emotional rather than rational. Rather than “trusting my gut” I have to seriously think about why a moral dilemma makes me feel a certain way and then try to disregard that feeling when I ultimately make a decision.

    I am amazed at what amounts to “education” these days.

    This strategy is called “poisoning the well”. It’s a poor form of argumentation.

  41. #41 MNb
    September 22, 2012

    @Dan L: 4:43 “mathematical “truths” are derived from axioms that are assumed to be true”
    Correct – but that applies mutatis mutandis as well to empircal “truths”.

    “I am not accepting definitions as examples of reliable knowledge.”
    Well, a fact is a definion as well, isn’t it?
    Again, I don’t deny the relevance of the empirical method, far from it. But I think we only should speak of “truth” or “knowledge” if some definition (evolution, gravitation, mental depression) accurately describes what we observe – ie theory matches fact. As I wrote to couchloc recently: math in itself is useless.
    Now it will be clear why I am, like JR, irritated by Pigliucci and the likes: they try to obscure this distinction. Instead of showing the value of philosophy he brings it down. He should say something like “Sure, philosophy leaves to science what can be empirically tested. So what? We try to answer questions which cannót be tested. And first we try to formulate them properly. That’s hard work. Here you have an example ….”
    In other words, Pigliucci tries to repair a perceived weakness instead of showing his strength.
    That’s why I wrote: if Krauss (or anyone) thinks ethical questions can be answered by science, let him try. If he succeeds he will have done valuable work. If not he has shown the relevance of philosophy. Human sapiens can’t lose.

    5:22 ““it is true under such-and-such mathematical theory.”
    This applies to scientific hypotheses as well. Relativity is only true under the assumption (there are a few more) that nothing can go faster than light and you can’t prove this in the absolute meaning either.

    @Blaine 5:23 “there’s no guarantee that moral questions are the sorts of things that can be resolved”
    I think they will never be solved in the meaning of a definite, eternal answer. But I’ll be happy if Krauss and co prove me wrong.

  42. #42 MNb
    September 22, 2012

    @Dan L: 10:37
    Again completely correct. But nothing of what you write answers the question if your decision in the end will be “good” or “bad”.
    Btw I have read about research which indicates that emotional and/if intuitive responses to moral dilemma’s are as reliable as rational ones. After reading quite some “subtte” theology on the Problem of Evil I tend to agree, primarily because apologists typical refuse to apply their logic on concrete examples like Elisabeth Fritzl and the Japanese tsunami of 2011.
    Another indication is that common believers in their daily lives typically ignore the nastier regulations of their Holy Books – regulations most atheists think nasty as well.

  43. #43 Dan L.
    September 22, 2012

    @MNb:

    Well, a fact is a definion as well, isn’t it?

    Not on my understanding but I’m not sure it’s a big deal either way.

    But I think we only should speak of “truth” or “knowledge” if some definition (evolution, gravitation, mental depression) accurately describes what we observe – ie theory matches fact.

    I agree completely. And I like your “proof is in the eating” approach, although I think there’s some confusion about what it’s being asserted that science can’t explain.

    This applies to scientific hypotheses as well.

    Again, agree completely.

    I think they will never be solved in the meaning of a definite, eternal answer. But I’ll be happy if Krauss and co prove me wrong.

    Since Blaine was quoting me I’ll respond. I think Krauss and Harris, etc. also think there’s no definite, eternal answer, and that’s not what they mean when they say “science can explain morality” (or whatever, that’s an awkward way of saying it). At least, that’s my interpretation of what they’ve said about the issue.

    But nothing of what you write answers the question if your decision in the end will be “good” or “bad”.

    Quite right. But look — I consider myself a moral person and I have reasons to consider myself a moral person. I make moral decisions all the time, although my reasons for making the decisions I do aren’t necessarily clear to me. It’s the same for others as well I’m fairly certain, I’m just being honest about it. So when I talk about morality, I’m talking about the mechanisms by which I actually make moral decisions in the here and now. From my perspective, “moral codes” are irrelevant — no one really makes moral decisions by evaluating their choices according to some rationalistic rubric of morality like “categorical imperative” or “utilitarianism”. So if the question is how to make better moral decisions one has to first determine how people actually make moral decisions and then decide what they mean by “better”.

    As I said, I think all this “ought” stuff is a red herring. Look at how couchloc refused to commit to an actual position on morality — he just declared what I’m talking about is not morality without justification. I think it’s better to be open-minded about what “morality” actually means. I take the same position on free will. Dan Dennett said “we have free will, but it’s not what you think it is” or something similar and that’s exactly what I think about both issues.

  44. #44 MNb
    September 22, 2012

    I’ll get back at your last reaction later, Dan L, perhaps as late as tomorrow. Now I find this interesting:

    “For obvious reasons I am not accepting definitions as examples of reliable knowledge.”
    In physics power is defined as the product of voltage and (strength of) electric current. What’s more, power can’t be measured directly. Every single instrument designed to measure power in fact measures some things else.
    But I’m pretty sure, when you buy a lamp, that you use the information provided on the box, which typically gives the power of the lamp. Then it’s suddenly knowledge.
    This doesn’t entirely answer your challenge though. Obviously there is empirical knowledge involved. But I think I can maintain that there is more to knowledge than empiry; in physics that more has very, very much in common with math – and in the end with philosophy.
    Other great examples are gravity and evolution. You can’t observe them; they are notions helping us to describe what we observe. In the same way force helps us to explain that my nose is going to bleed if you punch it. If you are too strict force (including gravity) and evolution don’t provide knowledge either.
    The reasons you refer to above are not so obvious or so it seems.

  45. #45 melior
    September 22, 2012

    Perhaps the dickishness would be more clearly understood by the perpetrators if it were characterized as a retreat into “naive philosophism.”

  46. #46 Verbose Stoic
    September 23, 2012

    MNb,

    Now it will be clear why I am, like JR, irritated by Pigliucci and the likes: they try to obscure this distinction. Instead of showing the value of philosophy he brings it down. He should say something like “Sure, philosophy leaves to science what can be empirically tested. So what? We try to answer questions which cannót be tested. And first we try to formulate them properly. That’s hard work. Here you have an example ….”

    Well, the problem is that it isn’t true. The part about philosophy trying to formulate questions properly is at least partially true, but philosophy doesn’t care about whether the answers are empirical or not. They don’t leave them to science at all. They’re even willing to get involved IN doing empirical work if it’s required to answer the questions and science either isn’t doing it yet or doesn’t find the questions as interesting as philosophy does (which is to be expected if they aren’t the same field). This is important to understand because it makes it clear that when philosophy says “Science won’t help here” or even “THAT science won’t help here” it’s not because they see it as scientific or empirical and say “Ooh, yuck!”. It’s because at least in their view there are serious problems that make it not useful. I think partly what annoyed people about Krauss’ and oftentimes Coynes’ replies is that they claim that it isn’t about them finding an actual problem, but about territory protection and the like. But this doesn’t seem to be the case.

    That being said, it’s interesting for me doing cognitive science. In the less philosophy-oriented courses, I spend all my time defending the use of doing philosophy. Yet in the philosophy course I took on it, I spent so much time defending the use of SCIENCE against those poor, benighted philosophers [grin].

    Dan L.,

    An example. Jonathan Haidt has argued (convincingly in my view) that most moral decisions are made on the basis of emotional responses and that the reasons people give for those moral responses are post facto generalizations. If this is indeed true then it’s important to realize this in the process of making moral decisions. It tells me I should doubt my first impulse when confronted with a moral dilemma because my first impulse will probably be emotional rather than rational. Rather than “trusting my gut” I have to seriously think about why a moral dilemma makes me feel a certain way and then try to disregard that feeling when I ultimately make a decision.<

    It seems, though, like this undercuts your stated project when you say that science can understand morality. You wanted to track what people actually did, it seems to me, when they made moral decisions. Well, it looks like it's based on emotions. But then you immediately turn around and say that this means that you should be careful and CHANGE your behaviour and decision-making process to make it more rational and less emotional, to rely LESS on emotions. But on what grounds? What standards are you using to say that you would be, I presume, more MORAL if you used reason more than emotions?

    The thing is that philosophers don't deny the usefulness of science — particularly psychology — in making moral decisions, in precisely this way. After all, "ought implies can" is JUST as important a principle as "you can't get an ought from an is". But the usefulness of psychology is muted if you don't know what it would mean to be moral, so that you can decide what, if anything, you need to change to become more moral. If, as it seems you accept here, you think that being moral requires rational thought over emotional reaction, then you'll drift towards a rationalistic morality like Kant or the Stoics. The Stoics, at least, cared a great deal about psychology in building out how to act according to their moral view, so there's no actual clash there. And on the other side, if you think that being moral requires more emotional involvement, then you'll drift to an emotional view, like Hume's. And you might think we need a mix. But it's hard to see how you can make a decision about what changes you need to make to make yourself more moral without knowing what it means to be moral. And this is one problem that most people think is what proves the is/ought distinction.

    Just because we currently DO make our moral decisions a certain way doesn't necessarily mean that we OUGHT to make them that way. In order to assess whether or not we should change our current behaviour, we need a moral standard to appeal to. That's what people say we can't get from science, but that we need for anything interesting in morality.

  47. #47 Verbose Stoic
    September 23, 2012

    First, I forgot to close the blockquote in the previous comment. Sorry about that.

    Dan L.,

    I’m under no obligation to change my understanding of what “morality” means to suit your preconceptions. Sorry.

    But neither are we. So where does that leave us? We have to have some common ground to decide what the understanding of morality should be, but simply declaring your positions and asking us to disprove you when you haven’t really given any evidence to make us think you’re at all right isn’t going to get anywhere. It’ll just result in us all declaring that we aren’t going to talk to each other anymore. So how do you hope to move things forward?

    But while I’m replying could I just compare our respective approaches to witchcraft and then try to extrapolate to morality? You come at the problem with a preconceived idea of what “witchcraft” means, you look around, and you don’t see anything that conforms to your preconceptions. Thus, you declare that it doesn’t exist…by definition as it were.

    Well, no, not by definition. We basically agree on what “witchcraft” means, and then look at the world and discover nothing that matches even closely enough that description. Thus, the thing doesn’t exist. Your view seems to be to look around and if you can’t find anything that looks like it, well, find something else that some people refer to as similar in those cases and refer to that instead. But that’s not necessarily reasonable. For example, why not achieve the same results by saying that witches don’t exist, but that the MYTH of witches grew out of Wiccan rituals that were expanded by superstitious minds? Why insist that they still have to be called witches? After all, in science no one is insisting that we should just redefine the terms caloric or phlogeston to mean “motion transfer from atoms” or “oxygen”, so why would it be necessarily better to do it here?

    But if your preconceptions, the “morality” that you’re looking for doesn’t actually exist then your theory of morality is up a creek without a paddle. If my theory of morality is wrong, it’s OK — I can use the failure to revise my theory in light of the evidence I’ve already examined. (If you hadn’t heard about this strategy, it’s called the “scientific method”.)

    Except, of course, that it ISN’T, since science doesn’t actually always do that (see caloric), and there’s nothing in couchloc’s approach that means that he can’t adjust his theory in any way. The real seeming difference here is that at some point he can say “Look, there’s nothing at all like this morality thing, so it isn’t there” where it isn’t clear that you can do that at all. If you allow for there to be that point, then the two of you are not arguing over that broad principle, but are basically arguing over where to draw the line. However, the real debate still seems to me to be over whether you can determine what moral decisions one SHOULD make from the moral decisions they DO make. This is what I’ve seen the whole debate as being. Is this what you’re opposing?

    Define “trust”.

    You think they give you some information about the real world, that they have some actual link to it. How do you justify that move so that you can claim to know anything from sense data?

    When I say “absolute truth” I’m talking about whether the knowledge is constrained to a synthetic system of rules or whether it applies to the real world.

    Fair enough, but no one is claiming that the truths of mathematics or of fictional characters have to rise to that level of “absolute truth” EXCEPT YOU. We say that we know these things because they are true in a much less absolute sense. So why, then, should we care if our knowledge fails to reach to that level of absolute truth? We never said it did in the first place.

    Definitions aren’t necessarily axiomatic. For example, I can define the word “tree” to mean any object exhibiting properties X, Y, Z, etc. There need be no such object for me to make such a definition, and the definition is valid whether or not such an object exists. The definition does not entail the existence of the thing defined, or the truth or falsehood of any propositions in which the object of the definition turns up as either subject or object.

    You seem to be using a personal definition of “axiom” here, again. From wiki:

    As used in modern logic, an axiom is simply a premise or starting point for reasoning,[4] and equivalent to what Aristotle calls a definition.[5] Axioms define and delimit the realm of analysis. In other words, an axiom is a logical statement that is assumed to be true. Therefore, its truth is taken for granted within the particular domain of analysis, and serves as a starting point for deducing and inferring other (theory and domain dependent) truths. An axiom is defined as a mathematical statement that is accepted as being true without a mathematical proof.[6]

    Essentially, it seems to mean something that is just assumed or accepted to be true (or the case). That seems to me to be what you said about your definition:

    Definitions don’t need to be justified empirically for obvious reasons.

    But since by your standard pretty much all arguments have to be in some way justified empirically, how is that not simply saying that it is to be just assumed or accepted and not argued for. That’s, then, axiomatic, which means that I can simply reject that definition/axiom and there’s really no debate to be had. But that’s not really the case here … at least according to everyone else.

    Actually, my formulation deals gracefully with this sort of issue. It is not true that Santa Claus has a white beard. It is true that within the context of modern American folklore, Santa Claus is claimed to have a white beard. This is not actually a serious problem.

    The issue here is that you don’t seem to be delineating any sort of real separate domain or anything, but are just describing the thing you’re talking about, and saying that it’s THAT Santa Claus. Most people already get that when you use the term, and so they would find your additions a bit pedantic. But, at any rate, there is still a sense where we can say that the proposition is true, and then we can say that we can know it, and then we can say that about mathematical and geometric ones as well, and then yet again we’re back to wondering why in the world you were saying that somehow we couldn’t know those things or that they couldn’t be true. Or is that what you’re really saying? I’m a bit confused on this from the arguments here.

    I just gave one: Bayesian inference on the class of all examples of reliable knowledge. Again, I will happily change my mind as soon as evidence is adduced that knowledge can be derived some other way (from first principles perhaps, whatever that might mean).

    Knowledge, traditionally, is justified true belief. You seem to accept that the statement “Santa Claus has a white beard” is true (perhaps with some additional qualifiers). I think we can say that we’re justified in believing that, and we do believe it. How, then, is that not knowledge? Or what empirical data do we muster to justify it, since we are doing it by definition? Or what definition of “knowledge” are you using here?

    At any rate, I didn’t see your Bayesian answer because all you talked about before was that you had looked at all the examples you currently have and haven’t seen it yet, which looked inductive to me … and is a prime example of the inductive fallacy. You cannot prove a negative statement inductively or with a probabilistic assessment because the first doesn’t apply past the examples and the second doesn’t even say that the thing isn’t case. To get there, even in science, you need to add a deductive argument or principle from first principles, arguing that if this thing WAS to exist ANYWHERE that something else couldn’t be the case, but it is, so then it can’t.

    To flesh this out a bit because talking about that in generalities is really, really cumbersome, if you measure the acceleration due to gravity at the Earth’s surface as -9.81 metres per second squared, you can’t say that that’s the acceleration at the surface of Mars and claim to know that. You just haven’t measured it there, and this one measurement doesn’t have to apply there. So what you do is you build a theory that describes gravity, and, say, shows that the acceleration has to be the same everywhere CONCEPTUALLY (not empirically). Then you test to get support for that theory. Once you get to Mars and note that the acceleration is different, then you toss away that old theory and do a new one. But to generalize as you’ve been doing requires a theoretical/conceptual move that you at least have not provided, and I and everyone else have no reason to accept your challenge until you give some reason to think that you’re right beyond “I’ve never seen one”. That way lies black swans [grin].

    You don’t seem to be paying attention to my arguments. I don’t think moral propositions can be directly proved true or false empirically because I don’t think they have absolute truth values in the first place. I explained this very clearly already. I think we can explain why human beings believe that slavery is wrong, and that is what I mean by “explaining morality”.

    And my answer to this is: if you can’t do that, then it’s not useful. Moreover, it’s not what people mean when they talk about morality, or, at least, it doesn’t seem to be. Do the empirical work. Whenever we ask questions about moral issues like abortion, stem cell research, animal experimentation, war, etc, etc we always seem to want an answer of “This is morally right” or “This is morally wrong”. We don’t really want to know what WE think about it, since sometimes we don’t know ourselves, and we don’t just want what the majority thinks is morally right. We really want to do this. Track dramatic moral dilemmas in fiction, and they reflect the same thing. When in Smallville Clark Kent says it would be wrong to kill Doomsday and Green Arrow argues that it would be wrong not to, no one thinks that they are just trying to figure out what they themselves are really thinking and that that’s the actual conflict. They both seem pretty well-aware of what they think. The question they are asking is “Which of us is RIGHT”. So, it seems, that if you do your project of figuring out what our sense of morality has evolved to be, it will be that sort of morality, unless you can muster sufficient empirical support for your view. Thus, your claim of “science can understand morality” doesn’t seem to be understanding the sort of morality that humans want understood. Now, it’s fine to say that that sort of morality can’t be understood and that this is the best we can do (as I’ve already said) and you’re in good company. But that’s not about redefining the term morality as you seem to do, but about acknowledging that that sort of morality cannot be justified.

    Of course, I deny that it can’t be done. I argue that it can be done by starting from the concept of morality and shaking out what you have to have, and then apply it to the real world and to real agents, which, as I said, I have recently worked out. But that seems to me to be a different debate than the one we’re having.

  48. #48 Verbose Stoic
    September 23, 2012

    Dan L.,

    I don’t believe “moral facts” are really facts. In fact, calling them “moral facts” is begging the question. That’s why I’ve been calling them “moral propositions.” Who is “we”, by the way and why should I care what they want?

    In that quote, I didn’t call them “moral facts”. I have no problem calling them moral propositions. But propositions, by definition, have truth values, and so can be true or false. That’s good enough for me.

    As for who “we” is, as per the previous comment that seems to be most humans, but at least that’s myself, Jason, couchloc and a few others here in this discussion. If you want to engage in discussions, you probably should care about how we’re defining terms so that you can figure out what we mean when we say “Science can’t understand morality”, especially since it very much seems that you’ve conceded that by our usage that statement is, in fact, true; you just don’t like our usage.

    The question is “can science understand morality.” I answer yes. I claim your objection — that it can’t be used to prove “moral facts” is a red herring because, in fact, “moral facts” do not exist in the first place.

    Well, yes, it can … if we use the term “morality” the way you use it. But no one has denied that, as I said. But if we use the term the way WE use it when we say that, then it seems that even you agree that we can’t. Thus, we’re arguing over usage, not over the truth of that statement.

    Just because I take the same starting point as Descartes does not constrain me to abide by his conclusions. I do not admit I’m “on the cusp” of rejecting empiricism. Stop trying to read my mind, you’re incredibly bad at it.

    Well, then you don’t understand Cartesian skepticism. Descartes’ skepticism is to toss out anything that he could possibly doubt, and then build back up from what’s left by essentially deductive moves. You yourself admit that you can doubt your sense data, and so by that model you have to toss it out. But since empiricism means that you justify your propositions using sense data, you don’t have empiricism at all unless you can justify that (which would defeat empiricism anyway). This builds in a tension into your philosophical worldview — and it is a philosophical worldview — that causes the issues of you saying that you have to put the empirical into the mind because otherwise you’d have to abandon empiricism. That’s what I meant by being on the cusp of abandoning empiricism, because you have to take stances on seemingly unrelated things just to preserve it.

    Now, what you’ve done isn’t necessarily new. I think that it’s similar to what Bertrand Russell did, so you might want to look into that. There’s a nice paper (Science vs Science) on that at my blog. But it’s too blythe a dismissal for you to say that you’ve jumped off before Descartes did when it isn’t clear how you can … and since you brought it up.

    This, BTW, is what I meant by what you took as a insult of my saying that you’ve opened up a philosophical morass that you may not be able to escape from. You do that a lot: blythely toss out philosophical conclusions about things like existence or contingency or morality or truth without realizing that these are quite controversial and involved concepts and issues that have caused massive consternation among philosophers for quite some time … and you can see all the reasons for that in the historical works. If we start down that path, things are likely to get horribly confused, but you seem to argue that those things are just obvious when, again, philosophy has pointed out long ago that it’s not that obvious.

    If you think contingent facts aren’t necessarily derived through empiricism, name one that isn’t. If you can prove you can’t get ought from is, stop huffing and puffing and just prove it.

    Well, why should I demonstrate that contingent facts aren’t necessarily empirical when you haven’t done anything to prove it? Why is it my job to educate you on something that has been discussed for hundreds of years beyond the short explanation I’ve given? Why do I have the burden of proof when you made the initial claims?

    If you think you can get an ought from an is, show how without introducing an ought into the argument. If you think that all contingent facts are empirical, then demonstrate it beyond “I’ve never seen one that wasn’t”. I see no reason to simply accept your view when your only support for it has been, generally “Prove me wrong or I’m right”.

  49. #49 Hayden Scott
    September 23, 2012

    Verbose Stoic,

    For the benefit of those following your discussion with Dan L, if you have an answer to his question on contingent facts, then please, if only for the rest of us, set it out.

  50. #50 Verbose Stoic
    September 23, 2012

    Hayden,

    Well, part of the reason I’ve refused to allow myself to be pushed into answering the question is that I don’t really know. What it means to be contingent, from Wiki, seems to be this:

    In philosophy and logic, contingency is the status of propositions that are neither true under every possible valuation (i.e. tautologies) nor false under every possible valuation (i.e. contradictions). A contingent proposition is neither necessarily true nor necessarily false. Propositions that are contingent may be so because they contain logical connectives which, along with the truth value of any of its atomic parts, determine the truth value of the proposition. This is to say that the truth value of the proposition is contingent upon the truth values of the sentences which comprise it. Contingent propositions depend on the facts, whereas analytic propositions are true without regard to any facts about which they speak.

    So this sets out the analytic/synthetic distinction, and it seems roughly that for Dan L. empirical translates to “a posteriori”. Kant rather famously argued that you can have synthetic a priori statements, which if correct would refute Dan L.’s statement. But that’s been challenged. So I’m not sure if we can have it or not, but then I’m not the one relying on that to demonstrate that it’s empirical.

    As for the is/ought question — if that’s what you are more after — I think it follows not from empirical examination of any particular universe (even this one) but from the definition of what is/ought mean. And the main question here is this: is it possible for things as they are to not fit how things ought to be, or are they always the same? Well, any notion of progress suggests that things now may not be how they ought to be, and so from there you can’t simply look at how things are and say “That’s how they ought to be”. But how things are might BE how they ought to be. How, then, could we evaluate this? Well, we’d need at least one value judgement or normative principle that we can use in the argument to say either “Things are how they ought to be” or “We ought to change how things are so that they are at least closer to how they ought to be”. Thus, you can’t move from a set of is statements to an ought without introducing at least one ought into the argument. And that, basically, is the is/ought distinction.

  51. #51 Hayden Scott
    September 23, 2012

    Thank you.

  52. #52 eric
    September 24, 2012

    couchloc (much earlier):

    I think you are attributing too much to his [Pigliucci's] words here. He’s trying to call out a particular group of individuals who seem to be getting a bit enthusiastic about things.

    And that the beliefs of these individuals could take over the entire secular movement. That’s what he says. Entire secular movement.

    Now, it looks like the conversation has moved on so I don’t want to belabor the point, but do YOU think that the entire secular movement is in any realistic danger of adopting the belief that nothing but hard sciences count as valuable? That history, mathematics, ethics, what have you, don’t produce anything that can be called knowledge?

    I don’t. Its a red herring to argue that strong scientism is either a significant reality or a significant threat.

  53. #53 Collin "Cheesehead" Brendemuehl
    September 24, 2012

    Dan L.
    Poisoning the well is not necessarily a fallacy. At times it amounts to pointing out that the well is poison.

    But to your point: I asked about a framework for morality. I did not ask about the lack of framework found in a subjectivist approach. A framework is an external structure.

    To some of the other matters: Whether or not a “definition” is a “fact” raises questions of both epistemology and scientific methodology. An empiricist/positivist (like Richenbach) would say No. But an externalist would generally say Yes. (And there are, of course, a myriad of other options and variations by degree.)

    Any threat from scientism is merely the fruit of the tree of Rationalism, where Reason (in this case scientific empirical reason) can answer the questions of morality. But too many — NOT just in the religious world as Jason fallaciously suggests — see that knowledge is too uncertain. These also are Positivists. (Popper, Lakatos)

    Empiricism is not about certainty. It is about the loss of certainty and the reduction of knowledge to induction. And so the quest for scientific morality, for the empiricist/positivist, remains not only unreliable (Plantinga) but equally Quixotic.

  54. #54 dexitroboper
    September 25, 2012

    Empiricism is not about certainty. It is about the loss of certainty and the reduction of knowledge to induction

    Oh bullshit.

  55. #55 couchloc
    September 25, 2012

    eric, I think you’re not reading charitably. There are several very influential people who have been making claims like “philosophy is dead,” “ethics is a branch of science,” “philosophers are morons,” “logic is not a branch of philosophy,” etc. These are ridiculous statements by any standard. These people do not represent the whole secular movement, I take it, but it would be odd to suggest they are not influential. I think Massimo is reasonably concerned that the positions taken by these figures may become more widely accepted. Don’t forget that Krauss was a key speaker at the Reason Rally in Washington. Hawking is the world’s leading physicist. Wilson a leading biologists. Harris a best selling author and on the debate circuit. Does this mean all secularists will start making the statements we’re discussing? No. But I don’t think Massimo’s point depends on that.

    “…do you think that the entire secular movement is in any realistic danger of adopting the belief that nothing but hard sciences count as valuable? That history, mathematics, ethics, what have you, don’t produce anything that can be called knowledge?”

    I think there is a slight misunderstanding here. What Krauss (and others) are committed to is not that history and mathematics don’t produce knowledge. Krauss thinks history and math are useful disciplines. But this is because he begins with a strict empiricist perspective on knowledge and then tries to “fit” everything into that perspective. “If math is a legitimate subject, this must be because it’s really empirical at bottom!” So he really does seem committed to the view that all knowledge producing disciplines are empirical.

  56. #56 Jim Harrison
    September 25, 2012

    This business about scientism is usually discussed as a fight between science and religion, though for many of us the problem with extravagant claims for science has nothing to do with theology at all. Indeed, since Christianity, the religion generally involved in these arguments, has always had a special relationship with Greek rationalism, theology and science are actually huddled pretty close together in one corner of the vast space of possible kinds of discourse.

    I don’t think of scientism as a philosophy at all. I use it to refer to a general attitude or ideology that isn’t very well thought out and whose votaries generally deny that it needs to be explicated since it is so obviously true. In other words, it bears to the same relationship to a philosophy that vulgar Marxism has to the thought of Marx. It’s the angry guy on the barstool’s version of positivism.

  57. #57 Kevin
    September 29, 2012

    You don’t normally accuse him of being in thrall to an ism

    Three paragraphs later you use the word, “creationists”. It is quite normal to try to identify and label a belief system, particularly where you suspect that debating a particular point necessarily entails challenging the whole system.

  58. #58 eric
    October 1, 2012

    Chouchloc:

    eric, I think you’re not reading charitably. There are several very influential people who have been making claims like “philosophy is dead,”

    Its interesting, I just started reading Hawking’s book. Got to that point, and realized that the “gasp! Scientisim!” interpretation of this is a bit of a quote mine. The next two sentences are: “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

    In context that seems a much more limited and reasonable claim of deadness. Its true (or at least reasonably arguable) that philosophy has not really incorporated the findings of QM into their arguments, despite QM being almost 100 years old. Its also true that society considers scientists to be the torchbearers for knowledge now, where they used to look to other disciplines.

    Now, is it intentionally provocative? Yes. Sensationalist? Yes. But, read in context, I don’t think its reasonable to extrapolate from dead-in-this-way-that-I-will-now-explain claim to strong scientism’s “only the natural sciences produce knowledge.”

    I think Jason is right. Hawking’s “philosophy is dead” is pretty much the same sort of hype as NatGeo’s “Was Darwin Wrong?” cover. Its there to get you to sit up and pay attention. Yeah, its hyperbolic and intentionally, provocatively, sensationalist. But when you read what Hawking means by “dead,” then just like reading what NatGeo meant by “wrong,” you realize its fairly narrow, limited, and that the author is not claiming anything truly revolutionary, just doing a bit of overselling.

  59. #59 Verbose Stoic
    October 1, 2012

    eric,

    The next two sentences are: “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

    In context that seems a much more limited and reasonable claim of deadness. Its true (or at least reasonably arguable) that philosophy has not really incorporated the findings of QM into their arguments, despite QM being almost 100 years old.

    Well, it’s still inaccurate. Philosophy has kept up with science when the science is relevant to its questions. It hasn’t incorporated the findings of QM much because it hasn’t been relevant, although it did try to invent a quantum logic to cover it, so it’s not like it ignored it. However, look at Philosophy of Mind. It has happily incorporated neuroscience into its discussions of consciousness to a very large degree, and it’s given us all sorts of wonderful new arguments. Psychology — particularly autistics and psychopaths — has given us all sorts of wonderful new data points to discuss morality. To say that philosophy has not kept up with science is just plain wrong, except possibly for QM … but, then again, one of the issues with QM is that even the PHYSICISTS don’t understand it, so how can the dabblers in philosophy do so?

    So, it seems like philosophy has done what it should do wrt science. So why does he or society expect it to do more? Because, perhaps, they haven’t just rolled over and accepted the scientific data and conclusions as facts and answers to the questions? After all, even his solution can be easily dismissed as “You introduce something; we were introducing somethings to solve this problem thousands of years ago”.

    I think Jason is right. Hawking’s “philosophy is dead” is pretty much the same sort of hype as NatGeo’s “Was Darwin Wrong?” cover. Its there to get you to sit up and pay attention. Yeah, its hyperbolic and intentionally, provocatively, sensationalist. But when you read what Hawking means by “dead,” then just like reading what NatGeo meant by “wrong,” you realize its fairly narrow, limited, and that the author is not claiming anything truly revolutionary, just doing a bit of overselling.

    You DO realize that Jason disliked the “Is Darwin Wrong?” title and thought it shouldn’t have been done that way, right?

  60. #60 couchloc
    October 1, 2012

    eric, I don’t think I would disagree with you about the Hawking quote I’ve mentioned. It is one quote and one shouldn’t make too much out of it on its own, I accept, but it is concerning that it is coming from the world’s leading physicist. I’ve seen comments in various blogs (not this one) where people say things like “philosophy must be crap if Hawking thinks it’s dead, etc.” So even a few brief words can have damaging affects and shouldn’t be taken lightly. But you’re right that the claim he makes there is somewhat limited and shouldn’t be overinterpreted.

    On the other hand, it is rather frustrating that Hawking’s other claim is based on pure ignorance it seems. He says, “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.” It’s pretty ridiculous for someone to say this and has no connection to actual reality. Here are a couple of books written by philosophers about these issues that took me 5 minutes to find.

    http://www.amazon.com/An-Introduction-Philosophy-Physics-Locality/dp/0631225013/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1349128187&sr=8-2&keywords=philosophy+of+physics

    http://www.amazon.com/Philosophy-Of-Physics-Dimensions-Series/dp/0813306256/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1349128187&sr=8-4&keywords=philosophy+of+physics

    http://www.amazon.com/Quantum-Non-Locality-Relativity-Metaphysical-Intimations/dp/1444331272/ref=sr_1_11?ie=UTF8&qid=1349128187&sr=8-11&keywords=philosophy+of+physics

    http://www.amazon.com/Philosophy-Physics-Handbook-Science-set/dp/0444515607/ref=sr_1_13?ie=UTF8&qid=1349128187&sr=8-13&keywords=philosophy+of+physics

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