Uncle Eric on scientism

Karl Giberson’s affectionate sobriquet has been permanently retired on the grounds of intransigent and senseless accommodationism, and has been transferred permanently to the estimable and avuncular Eric MacDonald, who will henceforth be known as “Uncle Eric.”

I am quite fond of Eric because he is smart, because he knows a lot about theology, because he has kindly served as a sort of theological tutor for me, because he gave up his job as an Anglican priest in the face of insupportable stupidity on the part of his church, and because he turned his sorrow over his wife’s illness (and her choice of euthanasia) into a wonderful website crusading for assisted suicide.

And like me, Eric’s original mission has expanded to cover the evils of religion, as well as philosophy and related topics (he hasn’t yet gotten to cats).  We usually agree on stuff, but, as he points out in a new post at Choice in Dying, we differ on the issue of scientism. His post, “On the strangely beguiling notion of scientism,” takes the stand that there are indeed ways to apprehend objective truth beyond the purview of science, and that those who claim otherwise are guilty of scientism.

We still disagree about this.  I’m sorry to say that Eric’s piece, like nearly all pieces on scientism, fails to make a case for (or even give more than one example of) “truth” apprehended by other than scientific means—and I’m defining “science” as the combination of empirical observation, reason, and (usually) replicated observation and prediction that investigates what exists in the universe.

I’ll be brief here, as I’ve posted a lot on this topic lately, but I want to discuss what Eric sees as “objective knowledge” that goes beyond science.

It’s “moral knowledge”:

And though Jerry Coyne (this is one of the small number of areas where he and I differ significantly in our approach to things) may dismiss ideas concerning value as matters of opinion, it is very doubtful that girls in Afghanistan, who have acid thrown in their faces or see their schools being destroyed, share that view. It is not just a matter of opinion that their right to learn should be recognized and honoured; how we establish what can justly be considered objective moral understanding is something worthwhile considering.

(Eric also mentions “value-laden domains such as ethics, politics, the law, arts, and religion” as possible domains of knowledge, but gives no examples of the “knowledge” that these areas have gleaned from our world.)

Now I agree, of course, that throwing acid in the face of Afghan schoolgirls for trying to learn is wrong. But it is not an “objective” moral wrong—that is, you cannot deduce it from mere observation, not without adding some reasons why you think it’s wrong. And those reasons are based on opinions. In this case, the “opinion” is that it’s wrong to hurt anyone for trying to go to school.  In other words, Eric claims that moral dicta are objective ones, on the par with the “knowledge” of science.

But such dicta are not “truths,” but “guides for living”.  And some people, like the odious Taliban who perpetuate these crimes, do disagree. How do you prove, objectively, that they’re wrong? You need to bring in other subjective criteria.

The problem with “objective” moral truths is much clearer in less clear-cut cases.  Is it objectively true that abortion is wrong, or that a moral society must give everyone health care? You can’t ascertain these “truths” by observation; you deduce them from some general principles of right and wrong that are, at bottom, opinion. (Of course, some opinions are more well-founded than others, and that’s what philosophy is good for.)

In other words, Eric is committing here the very sin he decried (as I recall) in Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape: he is saying that there are scientifically establishable truths about ethics. And if that’s true, then let Eric tell us what those truths are—without first defining, based on his taste, what is “moral” and “immoral.” Let him give us a list of all the behaviors he considers objectively immoral.

Now, I maintain that there is no objective morality: that morality is a guide for how people should get along in society, and that what is “moral” comports in general with the rules we need to live by in a harmonious society—one with greater “well being,” as Harris puts it.  A society in which half the inhabitants are dispossessed because they lack a Y chromosome is not a society brimming with well being, and I wouldn’t want to live in it.  And yes, what promotes “well being” can in principle be established empirically. But that still presumes that the best society is one that promotes the greatest “well being,” and that is an opinion, not a fact. To be sure, in some cases better societies may require decreases in overall well being, as utilitarians have noted.  As Dostoevsky asked, would it be all right to kill a single innocent child if it would save millions of lives? That would promote general well being, but is it right?

I don’t know the answer,, nor how to weigh the various forms of “well being” against each other, but I do know that the criteria of maximizing “well being,” while being generally good guides to morality, are still  judgment calls and not objective facts. And of course people disagree violently about “objective” morality. Just look at how the various religions (or even the various sects of Christianity) differ on issues like stem-cell research, abortion, gay marriage, divorce, war, or even masturbation.

Eric tries to finesse this difficulty by some logic-chopping:

To take but one example, it is widely thought, without any reference to moral philosophy, that morality is just a matter of opinion, or that it is entirely relative. Given disagreements in morality this is surprising, for genuine disagreement is only possible where we think we are saying something substantive, and subject to standards of truth.

Note the elision here between “saying something substantive” and “truth”! This is an unwarranted extrapolation often committed by critics of scientism; I believe Phil Kitcher makes a similar argument.  And yes, of course moral judgments can hinge on matters of real scientific truth! If you think that abortion is wrong because fetuses feel pain, that’s something that science can, in principle, find out. But in the end that still depends on an opinion: causing a fetus pain, even though doing so comports with the mother’s wishes, is immoral.  Just because a disagreement is “substantive” (whatever that means) does not mean that it can be resolved by determining objective truths.

So Eric, in claiming that there are objective moral truths, seems to have violated his own reason for criticizing Sam Harris.  As for the “truths” of law, art, religion, and politics, I’ll leave it to Eric to tell us what they are.

I want to differ with Eric on one other point: his claim that there’s no way to show a priori that science provides truth about reality. (Well, I agree with him in principle, but think it’s completely irrelevant as a criticism of science.):

Certainly, science works, as Hawking said. There is no question that science has discovered hitherto unknown facts about the natural world, and that scientific knowledge seems, at least, to be growing exponentially, or very nearly so. There are two things wrong with this. First of all, it does not tell us how we know that science provides the ”truth” about “reality.” [Note the admission that science "works".]. . .

And he then quotes Susan Haack:

“No scientific investigation can tell us whether science is epistemologically special, and if so, how, or whether a theory’s yielding true predictions is an indication of its truth, and if so, why, and so on …”

and criticizes Peter Atkins:

So it turns out that Peter Atkins [sic] famous paper, “Science as Truth,” is, in fact, though Atkins seems not to have noticed, philosophy and not science, and, if true, an example of non-scientific truth. Moreover, it is self-defeating, for, if he is claiming that science alone can provide truth, he is making a claim to truth which is not scientific.

Eric should be careful here, because he’s beginning to tread the road paved by people like Alvin Plantinga—theologians who try to drag science down to the level of faith because science can’t justify logically that it can finds truth.

My answer to this claim is this: “so fricking what?”  While philosophers draw their pay by arguing interminably about such stuff (and achieving nothing by so doing), science goes ahead and accomplishes things: we find out what causes disease and then find cures; we put people on the Moon; we build computers and lasers. In other words, by assuming that there are external truths that are apprehended by science, we accomplish what we want to do, including alleviating suffering that no faith-healing could ever relieve. The tuberculosis bacterium is not an illusion. I don’t give a rat’s patootie for the philosophers who tell us that we can’t justify science’s ability to find truth by a priori lucubration. Let them squabble while science moves on. The success of science justifies its assumption of objective truths and its program for apprehending them.

And note that, at the outset of his essay (see above), Eric does admit that science “works.” Later on, however, he’s not so sure:

And the frequent remark that science will win because it works, is, from the standpoint of truth, neither fish nor fowl, for a great deal in need of explanation is hidden in that simple phrase ‘it works,’ and how that relates to the concept of truth.

I’ll tell Eric what we mean by “science works” (even though he seems to have understood why in his remarks above): our understanding of what is in the universe advances.

Does religion “work” that way?  Well, if by “work” you mean only, “makes people feel better,” “gives them a sense of purpose,” “consoles them when they’re low,” or “inspires them to do good works”—maybe.  But in many cases this is the consolation of alcohol to the alcoholic, and in no case does it show that the claims of faith are “true.” In fact, they can’t be, for while Muslims are consoled by one set of tenets, Christians are by another. Christians are consoled by the possibility of an afterlife, but Jews aren’t, because most Jews don’t believe in one. Even within Christianity, some are inspired to do good works for the sake of helping others alone, while others do so only because they think they’ll gain heavenly grace.

If religion really worked, then our understanding of whether there is a God, whether there is more than one God, what kind of God he is, whether he’s a personal god, a theistic, one or a deistic one—all of this would have advanced over the years. And we’d know more about what God “wants” for us, and which religion, if any, is the true one. Needless to say, we know no more about this than did medieval theologians.  Sure, what theologians say about God has changed (not, of course, in a universal way), but that’s not because of theology, but because of currents of modern secular thought. Few people now think that the idea of hell is supportable, but that’s not because evidence has established that there’s no hell. There never was any evidence for it! No, it’s because we now think the idea of hell is immoral on secular grounds: it would be a horrible deity that would torture people forever for not believing in him, or for having sex with someone of the same gender.  Our theological understanding of God is exactly where it was in 1300.

So no, religion doesn’t work—not in the sense of finding truth.  And I’ll challenge Eric, as I’ve challenged Philip Kitcher, to give us a list of the “objective truths” that come from morality, from politics, from law, and from the arts. If these disciplines do produce truth, it should be easy for Eric to enumerate some examples.

I’m waiting.

291 Comments

  1. Peter Beattie
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    that is, you cannot deduce it from mere observation, not without adding some reasons why you think it’s wrong.

    And that is exactly the same as in science. Nothing is ever deduced from mere observation.

    • Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      I’ve figured out a lot of things from “mere observation.”

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

        It is tempting to think that, but you actually haven’t. Start with the problem that there simply is no “mere obsevation”—the image that your retina sees and the kind of computation that goes on in your brain to produce the image you are conscious of are a prime example.

        For “figuring out“, furthermore, you need a theory, a hypothesis, whatever you want to call it, that explains the facts of the world—i.e. that joins facts and arguments into something that yields conclusions. Those conclusions can then be tested for whether they correspond to reality, for whether they are true.

        • Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

          Sorry, I just can’t summon any energy for that kind of sophomoric semantics.

          • Peter Beattie
            Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

            It’s good to know you can still summon the energy for contentless (and baseless) insults, though.

            Yes, thinking takes energy. But trying to understand what somebody else is saying (and perchance learning something in the process) might also pay dividends in the form of increased intellectual satisfaction. I can only recommend it.

            • Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

              Where was the insult? I assure you I umderstand all the issues here. Odds are I’ve been around for many more decades than most people here, and I’ve had all of these discussions many times. There is no virtue in splitting every hair, and there are no bonus points awarded for using the most words. Sometimes the shortest distance between two points actually is a straight line.

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

                » Lizbeth Turner:
                I assure you I umderstand all the issues here. Odds are I’ve been around for many more decades than most people here, and I’ve had all of these discussions many times.

                Oh, sorry, my mistake, wasn’t aware of that. You’re right then, of course.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted December 15, 2012 at 1:32 am | Permalink

                I think there is a pretty short and straight line between characterizing someone’s words as “sophomoric semantics” and insult.

                I’m reminded of a joke I heard long ago. An engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician are riding in a train together across the Scottish countryside, when they spot a flock of black sheep standing in a field.

                The engineer says “Hey look! The sheep in Scotland are black.”

                The physicist impatiently corrects him saying “No, only some Scottish sheep are black.”

                The mathematician shakes his head, rolls his eyes, and after a sigh informs the hasty colleagues: “No. At this point the best we can say is that some of the sheep in Scotland are black on one side.”

            • NewEnglandBob
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

              Republicans/Evangelicals/right wingnuts have forgone thinking for about 50 years now. :)

        • Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

          For “figuring out“, furthermore, you need a theory, a hypothesis, whatever you want to call it, that explains the facts of the world—i.e. that joins facts and arguments into something that yields conclusions.

          Let’s say I’m six years old. I pound my hand with a hammer. I observe pain. Do I need a theory to explain this? Does the theory inform my reluctance to repeat the experiment? I don’t think so. A theory is a luxury at that point.

          • gbjames
            Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

            “A theory is a luxury at that point.”

            Not if your parents need to take you to the hospital to have your broken bones set. A theory of the anatomy of the hand and how bodies repair themselves will come in most handy.

            • Posted December 12, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

              For the orthopedic surgeon, yes.

              I think Don’s point was that the 6yo learns that hammers and hands don’t mix without needing a theory and hypothesis. Although I suppose it could be argued that the 6yo is in fact theorizing and hypothesizing, albeit subconsciously.

              • John Scanlon, FCD
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 3:17 am | Permalink

                That’s why 6-yr-olds who hurt themselves with hammers (or fire or bees or nettles or kittens) avoid them at all times in future, rather than trying alternate modes of interaction.

                Oh, they don’t actually behave like that, do they?

                Zero points for theory-free behaviorism, then.

              • Posted December 13, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

                @ John

                I’m not sure what you’re arguing. That children don’t always learn from their mistakes, ergo they must in fact be theorizing and hypothesizing?

                Note that I’m not arguing that knowledge can be acquired without a broadly defined science. The 6yo with the hammer still comes to the conclusion that hitting her hand with it is a bad idea based on empiricism.

              • John Scanlon, FCD
                Posted December 14, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink

                @ Mr beef,

                I simply meant that people who’ve suffered consequences due to inexperience frequently learn safer and more rewarding ways to interact with the hazardous matter. If everybody gave up after failing once… that would not be a world I recognise.

              • Posted December 14, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

                @ John

                Then I don’t see where we actually disagree.

                And “Mr. Beef” will henceforth be my new nickname! :D

          • Notagod
            Posted December 12, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

            Data point: “I observe(feel) pain”

            Associated with hammer and hand.

            Science rules!

            • Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

              I agree science rules. But that’s not the issue. Does knowledge need a scientific theory? It certainly helps, but it’s not required. People form a fairly reliable knowledge base without it, without even knowing science exists.

              • Notagod
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

                No, they don’t need a scientific theory but that isn’t the question of the thread. If they are to have knowledge as opposed to opinion they need to use scientific concepts even if they don’t realize it.

                If they are gaining knowledge through trial and error and settling on the better solution, that is using some portion of established scientific methods. If they are throwing dice to decide which act to try even though they have already tried and failed with some of the acts, they aren’t using scientific principles but they aren’t gaining knowledge either.

                The more scientific methods they can apply the better the knowledge gain is likely to be. Scientific concepts can be applied to many or even most life choices and actions. Most people do use scientific concepts in their daily lives.

      • Notagod
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

        However, you’ve done it without providing one example. If you are inclined to give examples please demonstrate how you figured it out by simply looking without any other input or processing. Any other processing or inputs would likely be leaning toward an approach that involved methods that are incorporated into science.

      • Alex T
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        Such as…?

    • darrelle
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      Sure it is. When you use the tools generated by materials science to predict the breaking strength of a material, and then you perform an experiment and observe that the material did not break until subjected to the level of force that you predicted.

      Or are you making a joke based on the word deduce? In that case you are absolutely correct. And, not bad.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      Nothing is ever deduced from mere observation.

      We deduce what is wrong, and so eventually what is correct, from mere observation. That is what statistics do

      And in any case, science is based on observation and constraint. Constraints are merely theory, experiments and experimental resources, pathways, et cetera, so based in observation as well.

      That observation is the basics of science is, well, an observation.

      Analogously moral opinion are constraints.

      But while we can observe some properties of opinion (say, frequency), we are not privy to their formation by way of testable theory. They are unobservable in decisive ways, where we would need observability in order to assess them.

      But I think the more generic difference is that opinion is relative and not absolute constraint, much more so than our current state of art in experiments or our historical pathways in this universe/on this planet.

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

        » Torbjörn:
        We deduce what is wrong, and so eventually what is correct, from mere observation.

        Again, no. See the Feynman quote below. Also, there’s this bit on what the relationship between facts and theories. The former can be observed and serve as evidence to test the latter. What is right or wrong (true or false) are theories, and these theories are neither observations nor can they in some way be induced or deduced from observations.

      • paxton
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

        Might be more proper to say what is induced from mere observation.

  2. gbjames
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    sub

  3. Posted December 12, 2012 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    you are right Jerry, well written.

    Uncle Eric: Certainly, science works [...] it does not tell us how we know that science provides the “truth” about “reality.” [...] and if so, how, or whether a theory’s yielding true predictions is an indication of its truth, [...]

    What these arguments overlook is that the only meaningful meaning of “truth” is whether it works, whether it does yield true predictions. That’s all there is to it.

    And the hankering after “objective” morality is the biggest red-herring in philosophy. Of course morality is not absolute or objective, it is a set of feelings, emotions and opinions cobbled together by evolution to do a job, namely enabling us to live together as a social and cooperative species.

    • Posted December 12, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      I mostly agree with the “objective” part, but not the “absolute” part. To be clear, we need to define these terms. As in the article, “objective” means that all independent people can arrive at the same answer by making independent investigations. Clearly morality cannot be completely objective, though the only kind of “valuable” morality can be argued to be that of “improved well-being”, as Harris suggests. I say “mostly” at first because I can’t see how one could argue that decreasing value to people is a good basis for defining morality. Demonstrable value is the only self-evident principle; it requires no justification, and hence any morality that doesn’t increase well-being doesn’t seem to have any possible arguable basis.

      That being said, if we accept that simple core “opinion” principle of maximizing well-being, everyone can often reach the same independent conclusions objectively.

      “Absolute” is quite different. “Relative” morality means *everything* is just an opinion, that throwing acid in someone’s face is just as arguable as any other moral conviction. But that is not true. Many absolute truths can be reached by analysis. For example, one can show that free-riding behavior reduces well-being even in the long run for free riders, and punishing free riders is an optimal solution to creating the most well-being. One cannot argue the opposite and say morality is just an opinion. These are absolute solutions to problems. But, again, that presumes that maximizing value to people is of value to people, which seems self-evident by definition.

      • Posted December 13, 2012 at 3:49 am | Permalink

        But, again, that presumes that maximizing value to people is of value to people, which seems self-evident by definition.

        But what humans value is just their opinion of what they like. So, again, there is no “absolute” morality, no rooting except the desires of humans.

  4. Posted December 12, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    One problem with science and evolution is that, if you are a human “exceptionalist,” as I am, that means that the evolutionary mechanism that led to the evolution of hominids and then humans was unique and so there are no animal models AND no possibilities of falsifiability – two pillars of the scientific method in biology. So you are left with whether the unique mechanism (that I describe in detail in my blog – http://www.apesantsandancestors.com/ ) satisfactorily explains ALL of the unique human capacities parsimoniously.
    Respectfuly,

    John Wylie

    • darrelle
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      I am not sure I understand. Are you stating that you believe that “the evolutionary mechanism that led to the evolution of hominids and then humans was unique and so there are no animal models AND no possibilities of falsifiability –”, and that the reason you believe that is because Homo sapiens sapiens is a “special” species?

    • steve oberski
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      Psychiatrist views mental illnesses as emotional fossils that reveal the role of God in human evolution

      Your basic xtian apologist who thinks you can reconcile evolution with bronze age mythology.

      Nothing new to see here folks, just another epistemological train wreck.

    • Chris
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      OK, so you’ve decided to call society/civilisation/whatever “God” (according to http://www.apesantsandancestors.com/facs-about-god-i-where-does-he-live/ ). Umm, OK.

    • Notagod
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      Unfortunately, you don’t have the eyes of an eagle and you can’t run as fast as a cat. So you need to limit the term exceptional to only the abilities that you possess. In that way you can surely state that you are exceptional among humans. It seems to denote a rather self centered universe for you. The earth would surely stop rotating if you weren’t here.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      Evolution is a process, and it makes all species unique by definition and observation.

      What makes your gods unique? What is your evidence?

      Re parsimony, it is a tool to compete hypotheses, not a way to test them. And all gods have failed tests. E.g., the christian gods didn’t make humans – evolution did.

    • mandrellian
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

      One problem with science and evolution is that, if you are a human “exceptionalist,” as I am, that means … that you have decided in advance that the God you have decided (also in advance) is responsible for everything made us to be his special little pals. The problem arises in trying to make that sound ration, so … here’s my blog!

      Fixed.

      • mandrellian
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

        *rational

  5. Posted December 12, 2012 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,

    Always glad to see posts like this here.

    (1) There are several worries about denying the real existence of ethical facts. One of them is that it’s not clear what possible argument you could give against the existence of objective ethical facts that has premises as overall plausible as, e.g.,

    It’s wrong to shoot girls for trying to go to school.

    (Incidentally, there’s one example of an objective ethical truth: a fact the truth of which does not vary constitutively by people’s opinions.)

    All reasoning depends on foundational assumptions, and so we need to ask, of whatever argument you give against the existence of objective ethical truths, what those foundational assumptions are, and whether they’re as overall plausible as what seem to be obvious claims about ethics, such as the above claim.

    Now, as before, I challenge the denier of moral objectivity to give me a valid deductive argument with the denial of that claim as a conclusion, and premises that are as overall plausible as that claim. Please ensure that you’ve expanded the support for all your premises as fully as possible, so we can examine the underlying assumptions.

    (2) As for science keeping on going, the claim that science is successful at all–has ever produced a true belief–once again requires trusting observation, and there is no non-circular scientific argument for trusting observation. Suppose that there were a sub-discipline of science, say, physics, where it turned out that one major method–say, particle collision–had some fundamental flaw and was known to produce false results as often as true. Should the physicists say, ‘I don’t give a rat’s patootie about this; physics will just keep going on, while the particle collision deniers jabber about unjustified results’?

    • darrelle
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Ethical facts are dependent on what human beings believe. Even if all human beings believed exactly the same ethical rule, all you could possibly be justified in claiming is that it is an objective fact that human beings believe that that ethical rule is correct. The ethical rule itself would still not be an objective fact about reality.

      Unless you would like to claim that we literally create our own reality. But, if that is the case there is really no point in discussing any of these issues.

      Regarding the “there is no non-circular scientific argument for trusting observation” argument, don’t get in the way or you might get run over. It may be an interesting problem for people that like to wrestle with such philosophical conundrums. But why should this result of nothing but cogitation be given any weight when in reality science (in the general meaning of the word) is so successful?
      Perhaps this is an indication that your philosophical model is incomplete or wrong. Or perhaps it is a non sequitur.

      • Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

        Hi darrelle,

        I’m still not seeing an argument against the existence of objective ethical truths here, much less one with premises more plausible than that it’s wrong to shoot a girl for going to school.

        As for trusting science, the point is, we don’t know whether science is successful unless we have some non-scientific way of measuring that. Any scientific way of measuring science’s success is circular. So I agree with you that science is successful, but I think we have non-circular evidence that it is, evidence from philosophical argumentation.

        Analogy: Suppose I claim that my Ouija board is reliable. You challenge me, but I start using the Ouija board to create a long list of claims. Then, when you ask me to verify those claims, I simply ask the Ouija board, one by one, whether those claims are true, and it says ‘yes’ every time. Should we conclude that the Ouija board is successful, and therefore, that we should trust it?

        • Tim Harris
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

          The trouble is that certain members of the Taliban believe that they are morally justified in shooting girls who try to go to school, or in throwing acid in their faces, or in blowing up schools for girls…

          • Peter Beattie
            Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

            No trouble at all. Just like a dowser who says that he practises science is not a problem. They may in fact believe that, but they are mistaken. If your “science” is immune to any and all critisism, you don’t know what you’re talking about. And if your “morality” means doing what makes you feel good (or doing what your god says, etc.), you also don’t know what you’re talking about.

          • paxton
            Posted December 12, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

            So Tim, I think the point is, we cannot prove them wrong, but we can judge them evil. It is a question of good or bad, not true or false. Science may have a monopoly on truth, but it is insufficient for judgment or wisdom. And because it cannot be proved scientifically does not mean the statement “shooting girls for going to school is wrong” is arbitrary or meaningless. It follows logically from the rational application of ethical principles,based not on scientific truth but on the consensus of the community. So in the Taliban community, they are morally justified by their standards. But even in the Taliban community, killing small girls is ethically suspect. Which suggests that there are “universal” moral rules. But these still do not have the stature of scientific truth. They derive from universal human traits, that are, in principle at least, discoverable by science, such as empathy with our fellow humans, and especially for the young of our species.

          • Posted December 13, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

            Hi Tim Harris,

            Yes, but those people are wrong. People can disagree about something and there still be an objective fact about it.

            For example, many people disagree about whether God exists, about who shot JFK, about whether the world will end in a few days, and so on. But there are still objective facts there.

    • Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      Well, for point 1: morality corresponds to a partial ordering relationship over a set corresponding to choices (IE: choice A is better than B; or worse than, equivalent to, or incomparable with.). The existence of a set of possible posets can be shown constructively from the existence of the set of choices. For cases where the set of choices is empty, or has only one element, morality is unique; however, except for these trivial cases, there’s no a priori basis to indicate which of the ordering relationships is meant. (In the case of infinite choice sets, some orderings require the Axiom of Choice to pull out.) An additional axiomatic definition can be provided, giving one a bridge from “is” to “ought”. However, any ordering is thus subjective to the specification of the bridge.

      For point 2, you neglect that there are arguments from alternative axiomatic assumptions. Not all arguments are circular; some merely work from a different explicit axiomatic starting point. (There’s also the infinite regress option of the Münchausen Trilemma, and probably some argument in that form.) Incidentally, your particular example neglects to address the epistemological problem of how that flaw would be “known”.

    • Gary W
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      TomUA,

      Now, as before, I challenge the denier of moral objectivity to give me a valid deductive argument with the denial of that claim as a conclusion, and premises that are as overall plausible as that claim

      1. Moral beliefs are not subject to proof through science or reason.
      2. A belief that is not subject to proof through science or reason cannot be objectively true.
      3. Therefore, moral beliefs cannot be objectively true.

      Ok, your turn: State your argument in support of moral objectivity.

      • Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

        Hi Gary W,

        Thanks for addressing the challenge.

        Would you expand on your premise (2)? I don’t know what the argument for it is supposed to be, much less an argument with premises more plausible than that it is morally wrong to shoot a girl for going to school.

        Also, is ‘reason’ an a priori enterprise? That is, does the fact that something seems obvious, or undeniable, or intuitive provide evidence that it’s true, through reason?

        Worse, I think there are counterexamples to your (2). There are events outside our light cone, since space is expanding faster than the speed of light. Do you mean to commit to saying there’s no objective truth about what’s happening outside our light cone?

        • Gary W
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

          Sorry, Tom, it’s your turn. We’re still waiting for your argument for “the real existence of ethical facts.”

          • Posted December 13, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

            Hi Gary W.,

            Here’s my argument:

            (1) It’s obvious that extreme, pointless suffering is objectively bad.
            (2) Therefore, probably, extreme, pointless suffering is objectively bad.

            The argument depends on the inference rule that obvious things are, all else equal, more likely to be true than false. But I wouldn’t recommend denying that rule, since you need something like it, in the end, in order to justify any belief at all. (For example, if we expanded the premises of your argument by creating more basic premises, at some point, you’re going to appeal to something like obviousness too.)

            • Gary W
              Posted December 13, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

              It’s obvious that extreme, pointless suffering is objectively bad.

              What do you mean by “bad” here?

      • Posted December 12, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

        1. Moral beliefs are not subject to proof through science or reason.
        2. A belief that is not subject to proof through science or reason cannot be objectively true.
        3. Therefore, moral beliefs cannot be objectively true.

        #1 is dubious.
        #2 is definitional.

        The proof looks circular.

        • Gary W
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

          #1 is dubious.

          Please explain how you think it would be possible to prove a moral belief through science or reason. An example to illustrate your explanation would be even better.

          #2 is definitional.

          Every proposition is “definitional.”

          • Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

            “Please explain how you think it would be possible to prove a moral belief through science or reason.”

            It will be possible when we understand how the brain works, particularly how its moral sense works. That is a scientific project.

            “Every proposition is ‘definitional.’”

            But if you want a valid proof your proposition cannot merely define (and assume) the thing you’re trying to prove. That’s what this definition does. That’s why it’s a circular proof.

            • Gary W
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

              It will be possible when we understand how the brain works, particularly how its moral sense works. That is a scientific project.

              Huh? How would a better understanding of the brain make it possible to prove a moral belief (for example, “murder is wrong.”)?

              But if you want a valid proof your proposition cannot merely define (and assume) the thing you’re trying to prove. That’s what this definition does.

              I’m not assuming it. And what do you mean by “this definition?” What definition? The statement in question is a proposition, not a definition. You’re going to have to explain the nature of your objection more clearly if you expect to be understood.

              • Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

                “How would a better understanding of the brain make it possible to prove a moral belief?”

                I do assume we have a moral sense. I do assume we have instincts like any other animal. I do assume those instincts terminate in the brain one way or another. If morality is based on an instinctual foundation, no matter how primitive, I see no reason we cannot measure it.

                “The statement in question is a proposition, not a definition. … You’re going to have to explain the nature of your objection more clearly if you expect to be understood.”

                You yourself said all propositions are definitional. Your definition states, “A belief that is not subject to proof through science or reason cannot be objectively true.”

                But the original challenge was to prove morality is not objective. Your proof assumes this: that if morality is not subject to proof through science or reason it cannot be objective. But that arbitrarily rules out the very thing that many theists claim. To some of them objective morality is based on revelation from a higher authority. In ruling that out, your proof does nothing. A theist would simply reject your proof as circular. It assumes their evidence cannot be admitted but your friendly evidence can be.

                IOW,

                The challenge was not to prove morality is beyond the reach of science or reason. The challenge was to prove morality is not objective. The challenge did not stipulate science or reason are the only ways to get there. That’s your addition.

                Your proof has another problem:

                Until you show exactly what morality is and where it comes from, you can’t say much about it. In over 2500 years reason hasn’t fared too well on the issue. So how can you depend on reason now to show us there are no objective moral laws? Will you do better than philosophers?

                Science has a similar problem. If you say morality is beyond the reach of science, this assumes science has shown us exactly what morality is. Otherwise you have no scientific knowledge of the subject. So until science solves the riddle, it can’t say what it is or isn’t.

                Btw, I have no supernatural beliefs. I’m not a mind/body dualist. I’m a materialist. I believe science is by far the best source of knowledge we have.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

                I do assume we have a moral sense. I do assume we have instincts like any other animal. I do assume those instincts terminate in the brain one way or another. If morality is based on an instinctual foundation, no matter how primitive, I see no reason we cannot measure it.

                We may have instincts that influence our moral beliefs. But studying those instincts won’t tell us whether any moral beliefs are true. Science may tell us why someone believes, for example, that murder is wrong. But it can’t tell us whether it’s *true* that murder is wrong. Nothing can tell us that. I don’t know why you keep confusing these two very different questions.

                You yourself said all propositions are definitional. Your definition states, “A belief that is not subject to proof through science or reason cannot be objectively true.”

                That statement isn’t a definition. It’s a proposition. All propositions are “definitional” in that they rest on words with defined meanings.

                But the original challenge was to prove morality is not objective. Your proof assumes this: that if morality is not subject to proof through science or reason it cannot be objective.

                No, it doesn’t assume that. It deduces the conclusion that moral beliefs cannot be objectively true from the two premises. If you believe the argument is invalid, explain what you think it would mean for a moral belief to be objectively true, but not subject to proof through science or reason.

              • Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

                Gary W,

                “We may have instincts that influence our moral beliefs. But studying those instincts won’t tell us whether any moral beliefs are true.”

                We were talking about “objective” not “true.” But let’s stick with “true” and replace morality with something else for comparison:

                We may have muscles that influence how we run but studying those muscles won’t tell us whether we should run. — this is true but should we *choose* to run then the study of muscles will help us understand how to best run.

                We know all societies develop moral systems. So we know we choose to “run.” Are there primitives beneath the moral surface? If there are, it would be helpful to know what they are.

                “Science may tell us why someone believes, for example, that murder is wrong. But it can’t tell us whether it’s *true* that murder is wrong.

                I would rather rephrase that to “whether it’s natural that murder is wrong.”

                Certainly we can choose to ignore nature and call it “false.” But if nature designed us one way and we ignore it, there will probably be consequences. We should at the very least make that choice with full knowledge of the issue.

                “A belief that is not subject to proof through science or reason cannot be objectively true.” — what we call this is irrelevant. For a proof to be valid all propositions must be accepted. There’s no reason a theist would accept that as a valid proposition. I believe science is the best process for acquiring knowledge. I’m playing devils advocate on this proposition. A theist wouldn’t accept it. He’d scoff at it as unprovable — and he’d be correct. I would accept the proposition with a caveat. No scientific law is “true” either, if by “true” we mean certain. Truth in science is level of confidence. Truth in moral laws should be considered likewise.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 10:18 am | Permalink

                Your latest reply is completely non-responsive to what I wrote.

                What you think it would MEAN for a moral belief to be objectively true, but not subject to proof through science or reason? What do you think the meaning of truth is with respect to such a belief?

              • Posted December 13, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

                “Your latest reply is completely non-responsive to what I wrote. What you think it would MEAN for a moral belief to be objectively true, but not subject to proof through science or reason?”

                I think I did answer that. It makes more sense to me to talk about “objective” or “true” morality in a scientific framework. But that’s me.

                Maybe you want me to keep playing devil’s advocate, so here goes.

                I’ve had many discussions on the issue with those who believe “objectively true” moral law can mean only one thing — it must be god-given. So if your goal is to provide a proof against “objectively true” morality, you’ll have to account for this possibility in your proof. Philosophers might have other ways into the issue. You’ll have to account for them too. So far you’ve only accounted for someone who already agrees with your notion of truth.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

                It makes more sense to me to talk about “objective” or “true” morality in a scientific framework.

                I have no idea why you think that statement is an answer to the question I asked you. Again, what you think it would MEAN for a moral belief to be objectively true, but not subject to proof through science or reason? How do you define “truth” with respect to beliefs of this kind? If they’re not subject to proof through science or reason, they cannot be true in the sense that knowledge we acquire through science and reason is true. So what do you think it means to say that moral beliefs are true?

              • Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

                Again, what you think it would MEAN for a moral belief to be objectively true, but not subject to proof through science or reason?

                Again, I answered the question. I’ll try again with different language. The theist, for example, would simply say your standard for truth is incomplete. He would say moral truths are not discovered through science. Those truths are revealed to “prophets” directly from the source. In fact, he might go so far as to say science produces no truth so your standard is false. How is this not an answer to your question?

              • Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

                Gary W,

                “So what do you think it means to say that moral beliefs are true?”

                If you’re asking me rather than a theist, I’ll answer differently. For me science and reason are vital.

                What does it mean for a moral belief to be true? That’s like asking what it means for a stomach to be true. It’s a misdirected question. If, as I assume, morality is a biological system for our species’ survival, then a moral belief is “true” (or in good working order) if it indeed exists somewhere in our biology and it functions as designed.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

                What does it mean for a moral belief to be true? That’s like asking what it means for a stomach to be true. It’s a misdirected question.

                Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been saying. Moral statements are expressions of preferences, not propositions that are either objectively true or objectively false. Since this is exactly conclusion of my argument, I have no idea why you challenged it in the first place. You seem to have talked yourself into agreeing with me.

              • Posted December 13, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

                “Moral statements are expressions of preferences,”

                That’s not what I said. I said the opposite. It’s not a preference that the stomach doesn’t digest steel. We can ignore that fact but it’s not going to do us much good to pretend.

              • Posted December 13, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

                Since this is exactly conclusion of my argument, I have no idea why you challenged it in the first place.

                Why is it hard to understand I challenged your proof because it’s circular? Even if someone agreed with your conclusion, which I don’t, that someone might be able to reach your conclusion by other means.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

                That’s not what I said. I said the opposite.

                It’s hard to find any clear position in your conflicting statements. You just agreed that moral beliefs are not true or false. You said that asking what it means for a moral belief to be true is a “misdirected question.” But now you say a moral belief is not an expression of a preference, either. So if a moral belief is not a proposition (a declarative sentence that is either true or false), and it’s not an expression of a preference, what the hell do you think it is?

              • Posted December 13, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

                Gary W,

                “You just agreed that moral beliefs are not true or false. You said that asking what it means for a moral belief to be true is a ‘misdirected question.’ But now you say a moral belief is not an expression of a preference, either.”

                You asked, “So what do you think it means to say that moral beliefs are true?” I tried to answer with what I believe. This had nothing to do with your original proof above.

                In answering I tried to give an analogy with stomachs. I’ll try again with smoking. I’ll simply replace “moral beliefs” with “smoking.”

                “So what do you think it means to say that smoking is true?”

                It’s true smoking is bad for your health. It’s true is costs money. It’s true smokers smell bad. It’s true some people ignore all this and smoke anyway. These are all empirically verifiable. But it doesn’t really make sense to ask if smoking is true or false. It’s just too vague a question. It’s a personal preference to smoke. The bad things that can happen to smokers are not a personal preference. If we didn’t look at the biology or the cost or the smell and simply looked at the fact that some people smoke and others don’t, then we could say smoking was mere personal preference. But since we do look at biology (and second hand smoke) we know better. The choice to smoke has consequences that preference cannot control.

                The same with moral beliefs. We’re in a habit of asking if moral beliefs are true. But that’s really not the issue, imo. The questions are, is it true that moral beliefs have a biological (i.e., objective) basis of some kind, and does the choice to ignore them have damaging consequences to either the individual or society? If damage results, then moral beliefs are more than taste or personal preference. Of course people can choose to ignore the hazards, but it doesn’t follow that all issues surrounding morality are mere personal preference.

                Furthermore, is personal preference really random? If not, to say morality is a matter of personal preference doesn’t get us very far. We have to ask why so many people happen to prefer laws against theft.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

                But it doesn’t really make sense to ask if smoking is true or false. It’s just too vague a question.

                No, that’s not a vague question. It’s a MEANINGLESS question. “Smoking” isn’t a proposition at all, so “smoking” can’t be true or false.

                I ask again: if you don’t think moral beliefs are beliefs that are either true or false, and you don’t think moral beliefs express preferences, then what kind of beliefs do you think they are? What other kind is there?

              • Posted December 13, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

                “No, that’s not a vague question. It’s a MEANINGLESS question.”

                If you believe that, then why are you asking meaningless questions about morality?

              • Posted December 13, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

                “then what kind of beliefs do you think they are? What other kind is there?”

                I think they are facts of life evolved by social animals, not beliefs.

    • Gary W
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      TomUA,

      As for science keeping on going, the claim that science is successful at all–has ever produced a true belief–once again requires trusting observation, and there is no non-circular scientific argument for trusting observation.

      If you really believe this, why do you trust science? Or do you in fact think it’s just as likely that, say, the moon is made of cheese as that the moon is made of rock?

      • Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        Hi Gary W.,

        Sorry, didn’t see this one at first.

        Why do I trust science? Because it’s obvious to me that science is a good way of learning about the world. Or, it’s overall very plausible that scientific methods, when applied correctly, generate more true beliefs than false. Or, I have the strong intuition that science is reliable.

        Why can’t the scientismist or empiricist use this reason? Because they deny that obviousness or plausibility or intuition is, itself, evidence. Scientists, for example, don’t say that something is obvious, therefore, it’s true. And if we allow in obviousness, then we acquire a bunch of evidence for things that other people don’t like, such as objective morality.

        • Gary W
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

          Why do I trust science? Because it’s obvious to me that science is a good way of learning about the world. Or, it’s overall very plausible that scientific methods, when applied correctly, generate more true beliefs than false. Or, I have the strong intuition that science is reliable.

          But you just said that you think there is no non-circular scientific argument for trusting that science has ever produced a true belief. So why do you think it’s “plausible” or “obvious” that it has?

          And if we allow in obviousness, then we acquire a bunch of evidence for things that other people don’t like, such as objective morality.

          No we don’t. What are these “obvious” premises that you think support belief in objective morality? What do you think it even means to say that a moral belief is objectively true or false?

          • Posted December 13, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

            Hi Gary W.,

            I said there’s no non-circular scientific argument for trusting observation. But I think it’s obvious that science is reliable because I consider the claim ‘science is reliable’ and I have the experience of finding it obviously true.

            I’ve defined objectivity elsewhere in this thread, but you might have missed it. Something is objectively true if and only if its true does not vary constitutively by people’s attitudes, identities, or situations. For example, there is one proton in a hydrogen atom, and there would still be one proton in a hydrogen atom even if everyone in the world for some reason began believe there were three.

            • Gary W
              Posted December 13, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

              I said there’s no non-circular scientific argument for trusting observation. But I think it’s obvious that science is reliable because I consider the claim ‘science is reliable’ and I have the experience of finding it obviously true.

              But why do you “trust observation” if you think there’s “no non-circular scientific argument” for doing so? And how is it “obvious” that science is reliable if that reliability is not self-evident but must be deduced?

              I’ve defined objectivity elsewhere in this thread, but you might have missed it. Something is objectively true if and only if its true does not vary constitutively by people’s attitudes, identities, or situations. For example, there is one proton in a hydrogen atom, and there would still be one proton in a hydrogen atom even if everyone in the world for some reason began believe there were three.

              Yes, I know what you mean by the “objectively” part, but what do you mean by the “true” part? What do you think it means for a moral proposition to be true? How do you define “truth” with respect to this type of proposition?

    • Pete UK
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      Firstly, you seem to be implying that science is a quest for an ultimate truth. That is, of course, wrong. It’s a process of continuous improvement and refinement, to find explanations of increasingly greater power, in that they make sense of more observations, make better predictions and, all else being equal, are as parsimonious as possible.

      Secondly, you cite as an objective moral truth “it is wrong to shoot girls for trying to go to school”. Of course, I agree wholeheartedly. But someone clearly didn’t agree. In his world, and his moral framework, shooting a girl for trying to go to school was OK, or at least preferable to some other course of action, however repulsive it appears to us.

      This leads me to question whether the expression “objective moral truth” has any unambiguous meaning.

      Take “Stealing is wrong” as an example less likely to provoke emotional reaction. Yes, this is how i think we should live, but an objectiver moral truth? What does that mean?

      Here’s a dictionary definition of “steal” I just googled, stripped to its essentials:

      “take the property of another without permission or right”.

      Well, this definition relies on what we mean by property and what we mean by right. Can we really not think of any situation where the morality of “stealing” might not be so obvious? How about a victim of a carpet bombing raid fleeing their home, starving to the point of death and afraid, finding an open door, entering what seemed to be the abandoned or ruined house of someone clearly wealthy, and pinching a slice of bread?

      You immediately have to plunge into a discussion of whether you think that bread was still someone’s property, and what we mean by right in this circumstance. It’s a complete minefield, and it tells me that a moral principle like “stealing is wrong” is a generalisation, based on assumptions about human existence and co-existence, which is guide to the best behaviour for the greatest good under normal circumstances.

      It presumes that any society we can think of has the concept of “property”. And rights presume reciprocal responsibilities: should not the rich man who had, incidentally, left his home to flee the country and left the door unlocked, also have left a note to say “it’s OK, help yourself”, or in any case have felt it entirely reasonable that as he was safely out of the war zone that others could at the very least help themselves to his perishable food?

      And we’re confining ourselves to humans on planet earth? Can we not conceive of more alien forms of life (separated from us, by the way, by gulfs of space enormous in comparison with the scum of our planet where morals have any relevance) living on different planets with very different access to resources or symbiotic needs, for which this precept would be irrelevant.

      Of course we can.

    • Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      “Objective” means free from all human bias and emotion; objective means making no value judgements. Morality and ethics are all about human biases and emotions; their entire domain is making value judgements. Objective morality or objective ethics are literal paradoxes, like a square circle.

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        That’s a view that is almost 400 years old (cf. Bacon’s Novum Organum), and it has long been superseded, I’m afraid. For starters, consider two quotes:

        From Karl Popper’s The Open Society:

        It may be said that what we call ‘scientific objectivity’ is not a product of the individual scientist’s impartiality, but a product of the social or public character of scientific method.

        And from Steve Gould’s “Dinosaur in a Haystack”:

        Scientists often strive for special status by claiming a unique form of “objectivity” inherent in a supposedly universal procedure called the scientific method. We attain this objectivity by clearing the mind of all preconception and then simply seeing, in a pure and unfettered way, what nature presents. This image may be beguiling, but the claim is chimerical, and ultimately haughty and divisive. For the myth of pure per­ception raises scientists to a pinnacle above all other struggling intellectuals, who must remain mired in constraints of culture and psyche.

        But followers of the myth are ultimately hurt and limited, for the immense complexity of the world cannot be grasped or ordered without concepts. “All observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.” Objectivity is not an unobtainable emptying of mind, but a willingness to abandon a set of preferences—for or against some view, as Darwin said—when the world seems to work in a contrary way.

        And morality is of course not all about emotion and bias: as I said above, personal preference by definition cannot be the basis of considerations of morality.

      • Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

        Hi J. Quinton,

        That’s not what metaethicists mean by ‘objective,’ but that’s okay. Here’s what I mean:

        Proposition p is objectively true if and only if the truth of p does not vary constitutively by people’s attitudes, locations, identities, or situations.

        For example, murder would be wrong even if we brainwashed everyone into thinking it was permissible.

        I believe there are objective moral truths. However, if you think that’s a contradiction, then use ‘objective*’ to refer to the property I outline just above. Then, I believe in objective* moral truths. Do you deny their existence?

  6. Steve Stark
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    You say about science

    “by ASSUMING that there are external truths that are apprehended by science, we accomplish what we set out to do.”

    And then you say

    “Now I’d maintain that there is no objective morality”

    And I would say, by ASSUMING there are objective truths about fairness/morality that are apprehended by moral philosophising we accomplish what we set out to do. Thus by assuming it is objectively true, eg, that it is wrong to steal, we put in place a system that reduces theft.

    Thus all your talk of going to the moon and how it supports your contention that there are objective scientific truths can be met point for point by my talk of having, eg, the rule of law and it supporting my contention that there are objective moral truths. And so while you fiddle around with irrelevancies such as putting various monkey skulls in various orders and seeing who can tell the best story about them, we get on with the important job of building a society that is safe and secure enough that such intellectual flights of fancy can be indulged.

    • Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      “Thus by assuming it is objectively true, eg, that it is wrong to steal, we put in place a system that reduces theft.”

      That strikes me as circular, in a way that science isn’t.

      The assumption that there are external truths is not an assumption that we can find out what causes disease and then find cures; that we can put people on the Moon; or that we can build computers and lasers.

      /@

      • Steve Stark
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:37 am | Permalink

        Take it up with Jerry. It was his word, not mine. He can of course change it, but then it can’t do the rhetorical work he required of it. So ask yourself what it was doing there and then you might see why I think the cases are, in that respect, the same.

    • Mark Russell
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      Having the rule of law might support your contention that there are objective moral truths if that rule of law were identical across cultures (or even came close). But we know it is not.

      Further, if an aspect of this rule of law turns out to be incorrect, how is it corrected? For laws that have changed over the years, were we right about them before or now? What are the objective moral truths that make our current laws correct?

      If these moral truths are objective, why such disagreement? Is it morally wrong to be gay? Give me a reason that doesn’t come down to ‘god said so’.

      Finally, and I don’t think Prof. Coyne needs anyone to fight his battles, but your tone is rather rude to our host. Try to be nicer next time.

      • Steve Stark
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

        Going to moon might support Jerry’s contention that there are objective truths if all cultures had been to the moon, but we know they haven’t and some lack the technology to get to Grimsby. (I make no judgement about which is a nicer place to live, fwiw.)

        If an aspect of the law turns out to be wrong we correct it the same we do science. Philosophy being a UNIQUELY self-critical and self-correcting enterprise. (I use “uniquely” here in the same sense it is used to refer to science uniquely being those things.)

        Re gayness, who said it was wrong? Not me. Darwin maybe – after all, it’s not really a very good reproductive strategy. And if that’s the basis for our calculus.

        My tone! See Winston Wolf’s response in Pulp Fiction.

        • mandrellian
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

          My tone! See Winston Wolf’s response in Pulp Fiction.

          What, this repsonse?

          If I’m curt with you it’s because time is a factor.

          The context of that line (for anyone who hasn’t seen Pulp Fiction) was Wolf directing hitmen Jules and Vincent how to best clean the brains of a dead man off the inside of a car that they’d driven to their friend Jimmy’s house before Jimmy’s wife got home from work.

          If you’re under such a tight deadline that you can’t be somewhat less abrupt and derisive, maybe you should sort your business out before indulging in internet commentary.

      • Steve Stark
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

        Going to the moon might show there were objective scientific truths if all scientific scientific societies had been to the moon, but they haven’t.

        And when laws are wrong we change them. Just like science.

        Re being gay, the most obvious non-religious moral perspective from which being gay would be wrong would be one derived from evolution. From such a morality we could derive right and wrong actions based on reproductive success. That is, nature’s will/God’s will. Think of all the abnormalities and deviations we could eliminate from that perspective.

        • gbjames
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:22 am | Permalink

          Huh?

          “the most obvious non-religious moral perspective from which being gay would be wrong would be one derived from evolution. From such a morality we could derive right and wrong actions based on reproductive success.”

          That makes no sense. Look up “naturalistic fallacy”.

          • Steve Stark
            Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

            I’m not saying it’s right, I’m relying on the fact that it’s obvious rubbish – as you observe. So for naturalistic fallacy read scientistic fallacy.

            • gbjames
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:33 am | Permalink

              Perhaps I don’t understand exactly what you are saying. I’ve never heard of “scientistic fallacy”. Is there such a thing? Who is making such an argument?

              • Steve Stark
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

                The scientistic fallacy is the fallacy of thinking that facts discovered by science can provide a foundation for morality.

                Who thinks that it can? Nobody here at the moment because today the article of faith under discussion is the fact there are no moral truths, and since science alone trades in truth and trades exclusively in truth, morality is rubbish and all moral pondering is pointless waffle because of that. Come back tomorrow though, and someone will be claiming that science is the only appropriate method of investigating everything including, obviously, morality.

              • gbjames
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

                We don’t have to wait until tomorrow, assuming we can agree on the definition of the word “investigate”. Assuming the term means something more rigorous than “ponder”, I’ll make the claim.

                Morality IS subject to study by science and there is a lot of work into, for example, ways that moral considerations play into the social lives of other animals, from rats to primates. Science trades in methods of investigating the universe and conceptions of morality are part of the universe. What alternative method of investigating ideas about morality do you propose?

                I see no fallacy in making that statement. Nor do I see anyone saying that morality is either rubbish or pointless waffle.

        • NewEnglandBob
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

          “From such a morality we could derive right and wrong actions based on reproductive success”

          Worker bees/ants would not agree with that.

    • paxton
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      Steve, That has a certain pragmatic attraction to it, but it is building one’s house on slippery sand. Anyone can ASSUME any truths one wants and one doesn’t necessarily arrive at a safe and secure society. This has been demonstrated over and over. Best to build your house on the rock of both good science and values that promote the welfare of society.

  7. NewEnglandBob
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    The clear thinking in the recent posts is astonishing. Thanks.

  8. Peter Beattie
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    And some people, like the odious Taliban who perpetuate these crimes do disagree. How do you prove, objectively, that they’re wrong. You need to bring in other subjective criteria.

    Not quite. Consider a dowser who submits to a test of his abilities, according to predetermined criteria fails the test, but still insists that he has special water-detecting powers. Our verdict that he is objectively wrong also depends on something that you might call a subjective convention: the postulate of non-contradiction. And that is not something that can be deduced from first principles—but it is a necessary condition for us being able to talk about science and objective knowledge, i.e. intersubjectively critically tested theories about the world. To be able to do that at all, we need to postulate that A and ¬A may not be true at the same time, lest any communication become impossible. If you do not subscribe to that postulate, you are not talking about science (or the pursuit of objective knowledge in general).

    Similarly, we can say to the Taliban who asserts that throwing acid in women’s faces is moral because their holy book says so that they are not talking about morality. They may be talking about obedience, but that is a different thing—and if those things are not kept distinct, then communication becomes impossible. Also, if you are trying to impose your personal preferences on other people and call that morality, you likewise don’t know what you are talking about. What one wants to do is not the same thing as what one ought to do.

    In the end, then, the possibility of objective morality hinges on the question of, “Is there something that it is rational to assume everybody wants?” And just as it is rational to assume that we want to be able to talk about reliable knowledge—because it enables us to make the best possible use of our human intellect—it is rational to assume that people want things that benefit their general (not just their intellectual) freedom. And that is what society is for, on so many levels, which last thought firmly hitches morality to the concept of freedom. Then, finally, an objective morality can be had—tentative, always subject to revision, always critical, always based on theories and arguments, but nonetheless objective (in the above sense).

    • darrelle
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      So, are you saying that objectivity is relative, in the einsteinian sense of the word?

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

        Knowledge can be objective in the sense that it has been inter-subjectively critically tested. If this so-called conjectural (guessed) knowledge survives our most strenuous attempts at falsifying it, it can make a claim to being objective.

        Cf. Richard Feynman’s characterisation of the core of science (in The Character of Physical Law):

        In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science.

        In this sense, objective knowledge is relative to the problems that we encounter in the world as well as to its competitor theories. Tomorrow might bring a new theory that shows the old one to be mistaken—or a new problem that requires a better solution.

        • darrelle
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

          I don’t understand how scientific theories being contingent, or how rigorously tested a hypothesis is has to do with whether the aspect of reality under investigation is objective or subjective.

          • Peter Beattie
            Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

            “Objective” doesn’t refer to an aspect of reality but to the truth of a conjectured explanation for why certain observed phenomena are what they are.

            The disctinction between facts—bits of reality—and theories—which can be true or false—is expressed rather well, I think, by Jacob Bronowski (in Science and Human Values):

            No scientific theory is a collection of facts. It will not even do to call a theory true or false in the simple sense in which every fact is either so or not so.

            Knowledge in this sense arises when explanations for certain phenomena have been tested against available facts, and passed the tests. Neither the simple gathering of facts nor the simple spinning of hypotheses alone contribute to the growth of knowledge.

            • darrelle
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

              I agree with and understand pretty much everything you have said, but I still don’t see the connection between what you are saying and whether something is subjective or objective.

              That separate masses somehow attract each other in a quantifiable way is an objective claim. That our understanding of this phenomena is not complete, that our theory describing it is contingent, how do any of these things have anything to do with whether or not it is objective. It seems to me that even if the claim were not an accurate description of reality, if it were shown to a high probability to be incorrect, it would still be objective.

              The same for the claim “chocolate ice cream is the best flavor of ice cream.” I don’t see how anything regarding the contingency of the claim or how rigorously it has been tested, or even if the claim is false, has anything to do with it being a subjective claim.

              RE your Gould quote. I don’t know the context so I won’t claim that Gould didn’t know what he was talking about. But, that individual human scientists are messy, flawed and incapable of being truly perfectly objective is exactly what the discipline of science has evolved to overcome. Intentionally, knowingly. Hence, at any given moment there may be lots of crap science floating around, but over a larger time frame the process of science weeds out specific bits of crap science and the stuff that has withstood the tests of time without being refuted despite repeated attempts to do so are the best most useful descriptions of reality we have ever produced.

  9. Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Any truth apprehended by other than scientific methods must be a subjective truth. That doesn’t make it any less true to the perceiver, but it does mean it cannot be reproduced.

    • Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      Lizabeth, so all mathematical truths are subjective? Really?!

      • Saikat Biswas
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

        Eric, why do you presume that mathematical truths are obtained by ‘other than scientific methods’?

        • dguller
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

          Mathematical truths have nothing to do with empirical observations or replicable experiments, and thus calling them “scientific” involves equivocation. Furthermore, if you want to say that “science” includes both the truths of empirical observation and pure reason, then that means that Thomas Aquinas was a scientist, too, which I’m pretty sure you would reject.

          The bottom line is that either “science” is defined sufficiently broadly to make any conclusion, whether rational or empirical, “scientific”, and would have to include even theology, or you make “science” too narrow, and necessarily exclude the conclusions of logic and mathematics as legitimate kinds of knowledge at all. Either way, you have a problem. The best solution is just to admit that science, as defined as the empirical study of the world by using observations and experiments to build explanatory theories, is not the only game in town to acquire knowledge.

          • Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

            Mathematical truths have nothing to do with empirical observations …

            I disagree: where do mathematical axioms and logic come from, other than from empirical observation of the natural world?

            • Peter Beattie
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

              That’s the classical problem of induction. Axioms, theories, etc. may of course be influenced by observation, but no amount of observation could possibly justify them. Our reliance on them, however, is entirely due to their being helpful or having explanatory power, respectively, and their having survived strenuous tests.

              • darrelle
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

                “Our reliance on them, however, is entirely due to their being helpful or having explanatory power, respectively, and their having survived strenuous tests.”

                These are precisely the same criteria that are central to the scientific process, that are used to determine which scientifically (in the general sense)derived explanations are useful, accurate descriptions of reality.

            • dguller
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:35 am | Permalink

              Coel:

              Since induction is never certain and absolute, but rather tentative and approximate, then it seems that you are arguing that logic and mathematics are not certain or precise, but rather just tentative approximations. In other words, because we cannot ever observe a perfect circle, then there is no such thing as a perfect circle, and thus any conclusions about a perfect circle are untrue and useless. We should rather just go about measuring empirical circles and deriving conclusions based upon them, except that logical derivation is also supposed to be empirical and approximate, and thus even the laws of logic do not guarantee truth.

              • Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

                I do think that even mathematical knowledge is provisional, yes. For starters, how does one get round the possibility that, since all humans are both fallible and similar, and thus might all suffer from the same flaw, how can we be certain that all mathematicians are not all suffering from the same blind-spot?

                In the end the only validation of mathematical axioms and logic is that it works, in the sense of matching empirical reality. Thus it is a part of science (defining science broadly).

                Indeed, what does it even mean for some statement to be “true”, other than “it matches empirical reality”?

              • dguller
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:00 am | Permalink

                Coel:

                I do think that even mathematical knowledge is provisional, yes. For starters, how does one get round the possibility that, since all humans are both fallible and similar, and thus might all suffer from the same flaw, how can we be certain that all mathematicians are not all suffering from the same blind-spot?

                Let’s use that same argument against science. How do you know that maybe the truths that science has shown us are not really true at all, but only useful to control the environment? As such, science only shows us what is useful and not what is true? Obviously, this form of argumentation is just the hypothetical that we might be wrong, and could be applied to anything.

                The more important point is that the truths of mathematics and logic are necessary truths, and not provisional ones. Assuming the truth of the axioms and premises, and the truth-preserving character of the rules of deduction, the subsequent conclusions are necessarily true, and not provisionally true and conditional upon whether an empirical experiment has been performed or not.

                In the end the only validation of mathematical axioms and logic is that it works, in the sense of matching empirical reality. Thus it is a part of science (defining science broadly).

                Then it would follow that all of mathematics is empirically false, because mathematics deals with perfect shapes and figures. Since we never see a perfect circle in the empirical world, it would then follow that any conclusion derived from the assumptions and characteristics of perfect circles is untrue. That would include the numerical value of pi, which means that we must chuck out pi, and most of physics with it, because many fundamental equations utilize pi. And I would love to know an empirical test that shows the truth of imaginary numbers, which are also kind of important.

                Indeed, what does it even mean for some statement to be “true”, other than “it matches empirical reality”?

                Like I said, that definition of truth compromises all of logic and mathematics by either making it probabilistic and approximate, and thus no guarantee to be truth-preserving, or flatly false. That seems like a pretty high price to pay for the truth of scientism, and actually seems to undercut the truth claims of scientism itself, making it provisional and approximate itself. Maybe it is true, but then again, maybe it isn’t. There’s no way to be sure.

              • Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

                As such, science only shows us what is useful and not what is true?

                What does “true” mean other than “matches reality”?

                The more important point is that the truths of mathematics and logic are necessary truths, and not provisional ones. Assuming the truth of the axioms and premises, and the truth-preserving character of the rules of deduction, the subsequent conclusions are necessarily true, …

                Assuming that it’s true then it’s true?

                … and not provisionally true and conditional upon whether an empirical experiment has been performed or not.

                But the only validation of the axioms and the logic is empirical.

                Then it would follow that all of mathematics is empirically false, because mathematics deals with perfect shapes and figures.

                That’s just an abstraction about naturally occurring patterns.

                And I would love to know an empirical test that shows the truth of imaginary numbers, which are also kind of important.

                Easy: you just show that equations containing imaginary numbers accurately represent and model reality.

                That seems like a pretty high price to pay for the truth of scientism, and actually seems to undercut the truth claims of scientism itself, making it provisional and approximate itself.

                Scientism is about science, and it is accepted that scientific truth is provisional and never entirely certain. The claim of scientism isn’t to absolute truth, it’s to the best that humans can do, as far as we know.

              • dguller
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

                Coel:

                What does “true” mean other than “matches reality”?

                But now you have shifted from “empirical reality” to “reality”. Does that include aspects of reality that are beyond empirical testing and confirmation? Would that also have to include theology and its study of the supernatural as a scientific discipline? Or, maybe you still just mean “empirical reality”, in which case most of mathematics would have to be rejected as knowledge, because it deals in abstractions and perfections rather than concrete and imperfect empirical entities. That’s a pretty high price to pay for the validity of scientism.

                Assuming that it’s true then it’s true?

                There are some propositions that are so foundational that their falsehood would topple the entirety of human knowledge. And these are not discovered by conducting an empirical experiment. Rather, in order to conduct an experiment or engage in an observation presupposes these propositions.

                But the only validation of the axioms and the logic is empirical.

                How could you ever falsify them? Propose a study to falsify the law of non-contradiction that does not already presuppose its validity. Assume it is false, and proceed. You hopefully will quickly realize that there is no moving forward without it, and that all empirical validation and falsification presupposes its truth, as well as other truths that are simply not empirical.

                That’s just an abstraction about naturally occurring patterns.

                But if the only truths are those that are confirmed by science via empirical observation and experimentation, then all of mathematics is untrue, because it deals with abstractions that do not exist in the material world. Then what exactly is the status of mathematics? It is a series of propositions that are false and untrue, and yet are absolutely essential to conduct scientific inquiry? That’s quite a bizarre scenario.

                Easy: you just show that equations containing imaginary numbers accurately represent and model reality.

                So, any variable and constant in a mathematical equation that is used to accurately model reality is true. Great! Since, for you, “true” equals “exists in empirical reality”, I would like you to show me where in empirical reality I can find an imaginary number? Tell me where to go and where to look in empirical reality. If you cannot, then there are mathematical truths that are not empirical, which falsifies your criterion of reality.

                Scientism is about science, and it is accepted that scientific truth is provisional and never entirely certain. The claim of scientism isn’t to absolute truth, it’s to the best that humans can do, as far as we know.

                But if the truth of scientism implies the possible falsehood of necessary truths, then that should falsify scientism, because if one had to choose between scientism and the law of non-contradiction, the former must give way to the latter, because it is too fundamental to be rejected.

              • Posted December 12, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

                Does that include aspects of reality that are beyond empirical testing and confirmation?

                I’m not aware of anything such.

                … in which case most of mathematics would have to be rejected as knowledge, because it deals in abstractions and …

                Abstractions about patterns in the real world.

                There are some propositions that are so foundational that their falsehood would topple the entirety of human knowledge.

                If there are, the only way we can know them is empirically.

                How could you ever falsify them? Propose a study to falsify the law of non-contradiction that does not already presuppose its validity.

                Make predictions with and without that law, and see which matches empirical reality better.

                … then all of mathematics is untrue, because it deals with abstractions that do not exist in the material world.

                The patterns that the abstractions are about do exist.

                I would like you to show me where in empirical reality I can find an imaginary number?

                Vast swathes of reality are accurately represented by the abstract patterns we call imaginary numbers.

                But if the truth of scientism implies the possible falsehood of necessary truths, …

                I don’t see that you can establish any truth as “necessary”.

              • dguller
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

                Coel:

                I’m not aware of anything such.

                What counts as “empirical reality” for you? Concrete material entities interacting with one another?

                Abstractions about patterns in the real world.

                But the abstractions themselves are not in the real world, and thus any conclusions based upon those abstractions will not be real. They are fictions that our minds generate that achieve a level of precision impossible to exist in the real world. Thus, mathematics is necessarily false, because it deals with necessity whereas the real world deals with contingency.

                If there are, the only way we can know them is empirically.

                No, you can know something only by virtue of them.

                Make predictions with and without that law, and see which matches empirical reality better.

                But the problem is that you cannot even coherently state a hypothesis without presupposing the LNC. By rejecting it, you rob all your statements of any meaning, leaving them utterly incoherent. I mean, say that your hypothesis is H. What if I told you that your hypothesis was not-H? What could you say in response? Without the LNC, it is impossible for you the fix the meaning of your statements, because anyone could say they meant anything at all, and you would be powerless to refute them.

                The patterns that the abstractions are about do exist.

                But the abstractions have properties that the patterns cannot possibly have. For example, the patterns are approximations and contingent, whereas the abstractions are precise and necessary. Any conclusions based upon the abstractions will also be precise and necessary, and thus cannot possibly be applicable to the imprecise and contingent empirical world. It would be like comparing apples and oranges.

                Vast swathes of reality are accurately represented by the abstract patterns we call imaginary numbers.

                What part of reality corresponds to an imaginary number? How do you know that an imaginary number is not just a mathematical artifact that does not correspond to anything in empirical reality? Also, what empirical phenomena did we abstract imaginary numbers from?

                I don’t see that you can establish any truth as “necessary”.

                To establish any truth at all, it is necessary to presuppose the truth of the LNC. That is a necessary truth. To reject the LNC precludes the possibility of knowing any truth. If that is true, then there are truths that are metaphysically prior to empirical science, and which empirical science presupposes for its own possibility, which means that there are truths that science cannot demonstrate, and which means that scientism is false.

              • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

                then it seems that you are arguing that logic and mathematics are not certain or precise, but rather just tentative approximations.

                You can certainly treat proofs as tentative approximations in certain ways:

                “Pushing this further leads to the PCP Theorem, one of the crown jewels of theoretical computer science. Any formal proof can be rewritten in an “error-correcting” format, in such a way that its validity can be checked, with high confidence, by looking at only 10 or 20 random bits.” [CS Scott Aaronson on modern proof theory.]

                “To “probabilistically prove” an algebraic identity: just plug in a bunch of random values and evaluate it! Not yet certain enough? Repeat!”

                And mathematical objects like proofs are empirical (here empirical games), see my longish comment below.

                Proofs started out as heuristics: demonstrations, but also broken down to mutually agreeable steps which no one has the resources to prove fully. In modern proof theory they have transited to empirical in every way, with testing of proofs (“validation”) by sampling and/or other computers:

                “Any formal proof can be rewritten in an “error-correcting” format, in such a way that its validity can be checked, with high confidence, by looking at only 10 or 20 random bits.” [ibid]

              • Posted December 13, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

                But the abstractions themselves are not in the real world, …

                Yes they are, they are patterns in our brains.

                They are fictions that our minds generate …

                These “fictions” are thus real patterns in material brain-matter.

                But the problem is that you cannot even coherently state a hypothesis without presupposing the LNC.

                Which means that the alternative hypothesis, adopting LNC, will win hands down in explanatory and predictive power. If everything is compatible with not-LNC then not-LNC cannot predict anything. Thus my test works.

                How do you know that an imaginary number is not just a mathematical artifact that does not correspond to anything in empirical reality?

                We do that by testing the explanatory and predictive power of theories and equations involving imaginary numbers.

                To establish any truth at all, it is necessary to presuppose the truth of the LNC. That is a necessary truth.

                I don’t agree: you can try out LNC and not-LNC and see which has more explanatory and predictive power.

              • dguller
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

                Coel:

                Yes they are, they are patterns in our brains.

                But the question is whether the patterns in our brains correspond to the patterns outside our brains. After all, we are not interested in what we think about things, but about things themselves. So, if the patterns in our brains necessarily have features that do not correspond to the patterns outside our brains, then those intra-neural patterns cannot be helpful to understand extra-neural patterns. As Aristotle would say, there must be a common form that is shared by the abstracted pattern and the actual thing being studied.

                These “fictions” are thus real patterns in material brain-matter.

                First, if you want to put everything in the brain, then you are stuck with explaining how a pattern of neural firing can ever be about anything, i.e. the problem of intentionality.

                Second, as I said above, the issue is not the patterns in the brain, but whether the patterns in the brain accurately correspond to the patterns outside the brain. If you have a map that does not accurately represent the terrain, then you cannot trust the map to be reliable. Similarly, if the brain patterns have characteristics that cannot possibly be outside the brain, then they are also unreliable.

                Which means that the alternative hypothesis, adopting LNC, will win hands down in explanatory and predictive power. If everything is compatible with not-LNC then not-LNC cannot predict anything. Thus my test works.

                But the point is that you cannot test whether the LNC is false, because to test whether X is true, X must first be coherent and meaningful, and X cannot be coherent and meaningful without the LNC being true. There is no alternative hypothesis in which the LNC is false, because simply stating it dissolves its coherence. You can only state the negation, i.e. “it is not the case that not-LNC is true”. The affirmation is incoherent.

                Again, the LNC is not something that science can test and determine using its methodology, because its methodology presupposes the truth of the LNC. It is like asking if there is any reason to use reason. In order to justify reason, one must already be using reason, because all justifications presuppose the validity of reason. To reject reason is to leave the terrain of justification altogether.

                We do that by testing the explanatory and predictive power of theories and equations involving imaginary numbers.

                So, anything in a mathematical model that accurately predicts empirical phenomena is a real thing? What about the center of gravity of an object? Calculations using the center of gravity result in accurate predictions of the behavior of moving things, but it cannot possibly be the case that all the mass of an object only exists in the center. It is a fictional artifact that is helpful for calculations, but does not correspond to anything real. Similarly, just because something is part of a mathematical model does not necessarily mean that it corresponds to something real.

                And remember, your criteria of reality is the X is real iff X is part of empirical reality. Perhaps you need to clarify what you mean by “part of empirical reality”? I took you to mean that X would have to be empirically observable. It looks like you mean something like “confirmed by empirical observation”, but then you have to clarify what “confirmation” would mean.

                I don’t agree: you can try out LNC and not-LNC and see which has more explanatory and predictive power.

                In order to test rival hypotheses, they must all be meaningful and coherent. You cannot test whether square circles exist, because a square circle is an incoherent and self-contradictory concept. Similarly, you cannot test whether not-LNC is more explanatory than LNC, because not-LNC is like a square-circle, i.e. it is impossible and incoherent.

              • Posted December 13, 2012 at 10:49 am | Permalink

                But the question is whether the patterns in our brains correspond to the patterns outside our brains.

                Yes they do, as an idealisation of them.

                So, if the patterns in our brains necessarily have features that do not correspond to the patterns outside our brains, then those intra-neural patterns cannot be helpful to understand extra-neural patterns.

                But as idealised abstractions of the extra-neural patterns the intra-neural patterns are indeed helpful. Having a simplified model can be very useful.

                As Aristotle would say, there must be a common form that is shared by the abstracted pattern and the actual thing being studied.

                Aristotle was wrong on that.

                If you have a map that does not accurately represent the terrain, then you cannot trust the map to be reliable.

                No map is a perfect replica of the terrain; lots of maps are very useful and reliable.

                But the point is that you cannot test whether the LNC is false, because to test whether X is true, X must first be coherent and meaningful, and X cannot be coherent and meaningful without the LNC being true.

                The fact that not-LNC leads to nothing meaningful and coherent, and thus has no explanatory or predictive power, and thus loses hands down to the LNC hypothesis, is exactly why my method works fine.

                You can only state the negation, i.e. “it is not the case that not-LNC is true”. The affirmation is incoherent.

                Fine; job done.

                So, anything in a mathematical model that accurately predicts empirical phenomena is a real thing?

                Yes, in the sense that the only meaning of a “real phenomenon” is the empirical description of it.

                Calculations using the center of gravity result in accurate predictions of the behavior of moving things, but it cannot possibly be the case that all the mass of an object only exists in the center.

                Considering only the CofM alone gives a degenerate result, yes. Considering other things also (e.g. moment of intertia) then breaks the degeneracy.

                In order to test rival hypotheses, they must all be meaningful and coherent.

                Why?

              • dguller
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

                Coel:

                Yes they do, as an idealisation of them.

                How does a set of firing neurons refer to anything at all without an interpreting mind?

                But as idealised abstractions of the extra-neural patterns the intra-neural patterns are indeed helpful. Having a simplified model can be very useful.

                Remember what we are talking about. We are discussing logic and mathematics, and whether they can count as true under your criterion of reality. We both agree that there is nothing in empirical reality that corresponds to mathematical entities. Mathematics deals with perfect circles, and empirical reality can never have perfect circles. Your claim is that perfect circles still exist in empirical reality, because they exist in brains as neural patterns.

                Ignoring all the problems with such an account, such as the impossibility of explaining neural intentionality without presupposing teleology, the bottom line is that if that is your criterion, then fairies and unicorns also exist in empirical reality, because they are neural patterns. Your criterion of empirical reality is too broad and utterly trivial, and would have to be revised, I think.

                But I do agree that a simplified model can be useful if there are properties of the model that accurately correspond to the reality it is modeling. There must be an isomorphism between the two, which brings me to …

                Aristotle was wrong on that.

                How was he wrong? The form is simply the informational and structural pattern that is isomorphic between a cognitive representation of a thing and the thing represented. If you reject the possibility of a shared form, then you have no connection between the mind and the objects it is representing. You have an unbridgeable gulf between the internal mind and the external reality. How would you bridge it without something like a form?

                The fact that not-LNC leads to nothing meaningful and coherent, and thus has no explanatory or predictive power, and thus loses hands down to the LNC hypothesis, is exactly why my method works fine.

                You’re missing the point. It is like comparing the theory of evolution to the theory of zarftug and tyrgul. You cannot even conceive of zarftug and tyrgul, and thus are not making a proper comparison. It is essentially the comparison between the theory of evolution and absolutely nothing but a string of words. Not-LNC is simply inconceivable and incoherent, and thus cannot serve as a proper hypothesis at all, and without competing hypotheses, you cannot have a comparison, except under the most trivial of senses.

                Remember what you wrote: “Make predictions with and without that law, and see which matches empirical reality better.” You cannot “make predictions” based upon not-LNC, and thus cannot apply your method at all. There are no predictions that you can make from incoherent nonsense.

                Yes, in the sense that the only meaning of a “real phenomenon” is the empirical description of it.

                What is the “empirical description” of an imaginary number?

                Considering only the CofM alone gives a degenerate result, yes. Considering other things also (e.g. moment of intertia) then breaks the degeneracy.

                Consider everything you want, the question is whether the center of mass is a real phenomenon or a mathematical artifact. It seems that you want to say that it is a real phenomenon, but that is impossible for a number of reasons, including that the center of mass is a mathematical point, which would mean that all the surrounding material particles have no mass, which is absurd. So, it must be a mathematical artifact, which means that just because a mathematical term X is a part of a model that accurately predicts empirical phenomena does not necessarily mean that X is actually real and not a mathematical artifact.

                Why?

                How do you analyze the predictions and implications of a nonsensical and incoherent proposition? A proposition must be coherent and meaningful before you can even begin to analyze the consequences of it. An incoherent proposition has no consequences, because it has no content.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

            Mathematical facts have everything to do with empirical observations and replicable experiments, from heuristics of proofs to proof theory.

            “For most of history, a “mathematical proof” meant a demonstration, in words, formulas, and pictures, that induces an “all-of-a-sudden” understanding of why a theorem must be true in humans who have understood it.

            With people like Frege, Hilbert, Russell, and Gödel, a new, formal notion of proof entered the world: proof as a mathematical object in its own right. A string of symbols that “mechanically certifies” that a theorem is true—generally, by starting from axioms and then applying logical manipulations until the theorem is reached.”

            “Sometimes the gap between “proving” and “explaining” has caused actual mathematical controversy. …

            Critics: “But what if the computer made a mistake?”

            Response: “Then check again with another computer!”

            Over the last 30 years, theoretical computer scientists have taken the concept of “proof” even further from “explanation” or “understanding” than Frege, Russell, et al. ever did. (Sometimes, like in cryptography, the impossibility of understanding a proof is actually the goal!)

            A “proof” can now be: probabilistic, interactive, quantum-mechanical… in general, an ephemeral process that, once it’s over, need not leave any trace by which to convince somebody else.”

            “To “probabilistically prove” an algebraic identity: just plug in a bunch of random values and evaluate it! Not yet certain enough? Repeat!”

            Today, when theoretical computer scientists talk about a “proof system,” they generally mean an interactive game…

            The Graph Non-Isomorphism protocol has another amazing property, besides its efficiency. Arthur learns nothing whatsoever about why the graphs are non-isomorphic!

            I.e. zero-knowledge proofs are just empirical games.

            [From Scott Aaronson's slides, linked in the link. My bold.]

            Similarly, the math we use and now prove is empirically constrained, by its use (what interests us to develop) and by computer and algorithmic technology.

            And as seen above, the mathematical object that is a proof is eminently empirical (“probabilistic, interactive, quantum-mechanical”). There are other mathematical objects like that. (E.g. Chaitin’s constant et cetera.)

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

              Also from the slides:

              “Goldreich, Micali, and Wigderson showed that, under plausible cryptographic assumptions, every formal proof can likewise be converted into a “zero-knowledge proof”.”

              I.e. all mathematical proofs are (zero-knowledge) empirical games!

              • dguller
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 5:24 am | Permalink

                Help me understand here. Because many proofs are done by random, empirical and probabilistic computers, it necessarily follows that the mathematical theorems demonstrated are also necessarily contingent and probabilistic? How does that follow? As long as the final product is logically and mathematically sound, it is necessary and certain, rather than contingent and probabilistic. In other words, if there is a series of logically deductive steps from indubitable axioms and premises, then the conclusion must be necessary and certain, irrespective of whether the means by which that conclusion was discovered were empirical and random.

                The more interesting question is whether something can be considered to be a proof if no-one understands it. That would be like agreeing that something could be evidence even though no-one understood it. Prime facie, evidence should be understandable and comprehensible by human beings to even count as evidence. Otherwise, it would be equivalent to Searle’s Chinese Room in which an individual receives inputs, consults a manual, and types an output that is equivalent to speaking Chinese, even though that individual does not know Chinese. Can this person be said to understand Chinese? I don’t think so, but I know inuitions vary.

      • Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

        My name is Lizbeth, and the answer to your question is of course “no.”

  10. Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    On morality:

    Ultimately, all morality takes the form of, if you wish to achieve such-and-such, you should do this-and-that. And it is up to ourselves to determine what our desires and goals actually are.

    However, as it turns out, there are a number of things that you can do or fail to do that will greatly diminish your chances of achieving all but the most self-defeating of goals. It is in this common pool of things you should or shouldn’t do that we find what most people apply the “morality” label to.

    If you wish to live the good life, with good food and friends and toys and what-not, you should not go on murderous rampaging rape sprees, and you should instead be a productive and honest member of society. You might be able to gain temporary benefit to a number of sideline desires by behaving badly, but it’ll just diminish your overall chances for success.

    In the case of sacrificing the one to save millions…well, in a society that condones such, you increase your own odds of being the one sacrificed. This is, of course disastrous should you be the “winning” victim, but it’s also harmful to everybody: you’re now left with the worry that you might be “it” someday, and you might have to expend effort and resources that would otherwise be profitable elsewhere to prevent you from becoming “it.”

    On the value of science:

    Science is an empirical exercise. And, empirically, science works. Some may consider that circular…but they’re now left with explaining why philosophy can be used to circularly justify its own existence despite a successful track record, but science, which actually has the winning records, is not sufficient to justify itself.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      Hi Ben Goren,

      You write,

      Some may consider that circular…but they’re now left with explaining why philosophy can be used to circularly justify its own existence despite a successful track record, but science, which actually has the winning records, is not sufficient to justify itself.

      This is a good point.

      There’s a few things the rationalist (the one who believes in a priori or intuitive, non-empirical justification) can say in response. I’ll just mention two.

      First, at least the “circle” is wider when it comes justifications of intuitions or other a priori methods. Empiricism is guaranteed to be circular, since it contains a negative thesis: nothing other than science confers justification. Rationalism, in contrast, is not guaranteed to be circular, since it’s only a positive thesis: intuitions confer at least prima facie justification. That at least leaves room for scientific justifications of a proper subset of intuitions, or some other, third kind of justification we don’t know about.

      Second, denying the evidential value of observation seems not to be self-defeating the way denying the evidential value of intuition is. Since epistemic justification is empirically unobservable–there are no gauge bosons that justified beliefs emit and unjustified beliefs don’t, e.g., “justificons”–even discovering which beliefs are justified and which aren’t seems to require a source of evidence other than science. So empiricism ends up undermining itself in a way that rationalism doesn’t. I think that circular, non-self-defeating positions are preferable to circular, self-defeating positions.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

        On the first point: certainly empiricism is circular. And that is how we know it works in the first place, by turning the process on itself.

        Recursion is a permissible, working method. It must end in a known case, here it is that observation works. It is only in “rationalist” methods that circularity doesn’t work.

        The second point is meaningless in the light of how the first point comes out. Empiricism is only “self-defeating” if you define it thusly.

        Similarly to how you define “rationalist” methods to not be “self-defeating”, working, by using an a priori assumption. However, you don’t respond to Ben’s point that it makes it circular, which is a _rationalist_ no-no, and however that is a problem or not, that “rationalist” methods aren’t rational: they don’t pass the outsider’s test.

        E.g. both religion and philosophy can conclude different but equally “valid” schools/ideas/gods et cetera.

  11. Ray Moscow
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    I don’t see how science can tell us the right or wrong of something without taking our values into account, and those values cannot be reached by science alone. For example, most of us feel horror even thinking of a child being harmed, but it’s not science that created this value: it’s emotional empathy. This also implies that our values are somewhat subjective.

    But science helps us find reliable ways to reach goals in line with those values — e.g., how to prevent child abuse, through an understanding of its underlying causes and how to minimise or prevent them.

    Religion of course doesn’t tell us anything reliable, full stop.

    • Mark Fuller Dillon
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      Excellent points, and worth pondering.

    • Posted December 13, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      How did we arrive at emotional empathy over child abuse? Some cultures sacrificed babies without remorse and some today leave them in train stations for others to find because they are girls. What we hold sacred dictates our values. Religion simply attempts to determine what is sacred to us. As Westerners we cannot escape 2000 years of Christian thought and influence so we have such empathy. Religion simply helps us to set a course toward that whole valuation process if you will.

  12. Kevin Alexander
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    How about if we think of moral ‘truths’ as scientific hypotheses then do the experiments.

    I propose that throwing acid in girls faces is counterproductive to the well being of society so lets not do it and see if things get better.

    • darrelle
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      You are doing the same thing Eric did in his post. You are intentionally selecting a horrendous example to essentially argue that because this is so horrible it must be objectively true that it is wrong, and if you don’t think so there is something wrong with you. As if objective is somehow better than subjective. It of course depends on the context. In the context of how I believe human beings should behave towards each other I think it is evil as shit and it greatly disturbs me, and no arguments to the contrary will convince me otherwise. But that is still subjective, and for that context that is perfectly sufficient and fine and dandy with me. No problems.

      Of course, as Peter Beattie seems to say above at 8, if you limit your universe to “decent human beings” then I suppose you could accurately claim that such behavior is objectively bad. I don’t mean that as snark. In certain contexts it may be reasonable to think of it that way. But if that is the case then it should be made clear at the outset what exactly we mean by objective and what the context is.

    • Gary W
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      I propose that throwing acid in girls faces is counterproductive to the well being of society so lets not do it and see if things get better.

      The fact that an act is counterproductive to a goal does not mean the act is objectively wrong. What reason is there to believe that advancing the well being of society is *objectively* right, rather than just something we all want? (or that most people want, anyway)

  13. Kevin
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    It really all goes back to that slippery word “truth”.

    You define it as “that which can be empirically justified by careful observation.”

    Some define it differently, to suit their philosophical purposes.

    It’s kind of a one-size-fits-all word. It’s very plastic.

    Therefore useless.

    I conclude, therefore, that you’re arguing past one another because you’re working from different understandings of what you’re talking about when you use the word “truth”.

    I see no problem in justifying moral decision-making without the use of careful empirical observation. You don’t have to do a scientific study on the harm child rape does to conclude that child rape is objectively a moral evil. That’s “true” whether or not science allows it.

    Now, of course, scientists will raise their hands and state, “but we have studied the harm that child rape does, so we can objectively measure why it’s wrong.” OK. But that’s not the same thing as intuiting that it’s wrong in the first place.

    The moral intuition came first. Not the science. Science doesn’t establish societal ethics/morals. It can only study them.

    Same with the law. We intuit that it’s better for people to have access to high-quality health care than not, and better for society as well. Or that clean water and air are better than dirty air or water. We don’t need the scientific study to make the intuition. We might use the scientific study to justify the lawmaking, but again, the intuition came first.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      Intuitions did not come first. Knowledge of circumstances and what others have told you about them came first, therefor observations came first.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 6:24 am | Permalink

      “You don’t have to do a scientific study on the harm child rape does to conclude that child rape is objectively a moral evil.”

      Well of course it’s evil… most people would agree. But what is the word ‘objectively’ doing in your claim? Does it actually modify or restrict the sense of ‘is’ in any way? Might as well leave it out, to avoid being fatuous.

  14. Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    I am perplexed by Eric’s defense of religion when he says that gives some moral knowledge but then uses an example where people are committing a vile act because of their religious beliefs. Or is it the same old “my religion is right, your religion is wrong” argument?

    • Mark Fuller Dillon
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      Eric MacDonald does not defend religion, and many of his essays are directly about the need to dismantle and refute its claims to any kind of moral knowledge.

      I recommend his website!

  15. darrelle
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    “There are two things wrong with this. First of all, it does not tell us how we know that science provides the ”truth” about “reality.””

    I have always found it interesting how scientism proponents’ arguments seem to correspond so closely to believers’ arguments in defense of their god’s existence. On the one had you have the concept of a god. On the other hand you have a process for discovering truth. In both cases it is impossible to prove with no probability of error that either exists.

    In the case of gods, believers use the “you can’t prove my god doesn’t exist” argument to claim that it is therefore reasonable to suppose that their very specific god does exist. And that all sorts of very specific things about their god story are true. Even though there is no good evidence to suppose that any of it is true, and enormous amounts of good evidence against it.

    In the case of the methods of science being capable of gleaning accurate information about reality, proponents of scientism argue that it is impossible to know for sure if the results of science are really TRUE. And therefore you should not ever say that science works great because that is just stupid, or something. Even though there is an enormous amount of evidence to support the claim that science does generate truths about reality, for any reasonable, useful meaning of the word truth in the context of real things.

    And, lest those throwing the accusation of scientism around forget, the golden rule of science, is that all of the results of science are contingent and probabilistic. And the evidence strongly suggest that that is the only kind of truth possible in the context of real things. There is no reason to believe that the concept of a pristine, perfect TRUTH of some sort comports with reality, except in a purely subjective context.

    • a Martin
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

      I fully agree.

      Also, what point is there to always consider those possible, hypothetical “other realities” we can’t comprehend that *might* have something to do with us? Especially since there could be an infinity number of variations to how this/these realities works, because we don’t know their “nature”, right? Why not consider that there might be a dimension where there are species that’s having the same discussion that we have here. That should help you next time at the particle accelerator, shouldn’t it? :-|

      No, seriously – considering these things just won’t lead anywhere (at the moment). Why not go with what we “know” we have and focus on what *seems* to be the objective (physical) reality we all share (though our interpretations of this reality in many ways are subjective). Doesn’t that make most sense?

  16. JohnC
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    The claim that there is no objective morality is, of course, a philosophical claim, and much hinges on the meaning of “objective”. It doesn’t mean, as people like William Lane Craig like to assert, true for all time or established independent of the natural world.

    Are social and historical realities objective? I think so, to the extent that they exist independent of any given observer (subject). In that sense, an ethical “truth” can exist in a particular historical and social context, and can be “discovered” by empirical and rational methods. That is after all what anthropology tried to do when it reconstructed the social and ethical fabric of non-Western societies. The fact many ethical truths of a particular Australian Aboriginal tribe, say, are different from our own, does not make either of them subjective or merely matters of opinion.

    The objective nature of ethical truths is, of course, much more difficult to perceive for us because unlike pre-modern societies our world has been undergoing rapid change involving a great deal of social contest (meaning clashes of old and emergent ethical paradigms). This is true of all class societies. But that does not mean ethical truths are not objective, just that they are evolving more rapidly.

    So a stance of “moral realism” is definitely of valid philosophically, and it points to our ability to discover things about the world, such a ethical truths, in disciplines that are not part of the natural sciences.

    Such an approach obviously owes something to Marxist historiography and other materialist approaches to social reality, for which we should make no apology.

    • Gary W
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      Are social and historical realities objective? I think so, to the extent that they exist independent of any given observer (subject). In that sense, an ethical “truth” can exist in a particular historical and social context, and can be “discovered” by empirical and rational methods.

      What, exactly, do you mean by “social and historical realities?” There are obviously such things as historical facts or “realities” (e.g., the “reality” that Abraham Lincoln used to be president of the United States). But what’s a “social reality?” If this simply refers to the prevailing beliefs in a society, the mere fact that a moral belief is common — or even universal — in a society does not mean it is objectively true.

      • JohnC
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

        In 1958 four per cent of Americans approved of inter-racial marriage; last year 86 per cent did. This change is as much an objective “fact” as Lincoln’s presidency, and it indicates the “moral truth” of miscegenation has undergone a reversal of polarity.

        • Gary W
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

          The fact that beliefs about the morality of inter-racial marriage have changed dramatically is not evidence that such beliefs are objectively true or false, rather than expressions of preference.

          • JohnC
            Posted December 12, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

            Two issues:

            1. Meaning of “objectively”. As I argued above, in this context it means independent of the opinions of the observer. So the change in attitudes to miscegenation is an objective social fact.

            2. To the extent attitudes to miscegenation are founded on a moral position (ie they express an “ought” position), the moral truth on this issue has changed.

            This is not moral relativism, because it sees the change as the result of concrete social and historical process that can be empirically analysed as objective changes in complex social relations.

            This approach also dissolves the so-called naturalistic fallacy.

            • Gary W
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

              Meaning of “objectively”. As I argued above, in this context it means independent of the opinions of the observer. So the change in attitudes to miscegenation is an objective social fact.

              Yes, obviously if beliefs on miscegenation have changed it is an objective fact that those beliefs have changed.

              2. To the extent attitudes to miscegenation are founded on a moral position (ie they express an “ought” position), the moral truth on this issue has changed.

              Moral *beliefs* have changed. What do you mean by “moral truth on this issue has changed?” What propositions are you referring to here by the phrase “moral truth?” You keep using these obscure terms without explaining what you mean by them.

              • JohnC
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

                In this example, “inter-racial marriage in not immoral” is an objective moral truth in contemporary Western societies quite independent of the beliefs or practices of any particular individual.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

                In this example, “inter-racial marriage in not immoral” is an objective moral truth in contemporary Western societies quite independent of the beliefs or practices of any particular individual.

                No it isn’t. The mere fact that some number of people believe that a proposition (such as “inter-racial marriage is not immoral”) is objectively true does not mean that the proposition actually is objectively true.

                Even if everyone believed the earth was flat, that wouldn’t mean “the earth is flat” is an objective moral truth.

              • JohnC
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

                You continue to miss the point. Moral truths are historically contingent social realities.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

                Moral truths are historically contingent social realities.

                You are conflating two completely different kinds of question: What people believe is true, and what is actually true. Whether “inter-racial marriage is not immoral” is true is a different question from whether “most people believe inter-racial marriage is not immoral” is true.

            • JohnC
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

              No. People’s individual beliefs are a reflection of social reality, which is not itself reducible to those beliefs. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please” — The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

              • Gary W
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

                No. People’s individual beliefs are a reflection of social reality, which is not itself reducible to those beliefs.

                You are yet again ignoring the point. What believe is true is not the same thing as what is actually true.

            • John Scanlon, FCD
              Posted December 13, 2012 at 7:41 am | Permalink

              This approach (as you call it) is completely insane.

              There may well be objective truths about beliefs (or at least, expressions of belief) on a particular subject at a certain time and place.

              Those beliefs may be about morality, but the truth that varies from place to place and time to time is truth about beliefs, not about morality.

              • JohnC
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

                And the difference between moral beliefs and morality is??

                But also, I’m NOT just talking about beliefs but also practices, institutions, and society’s discursive formation.

                It amazes me that people who oppose idealism in the natural sciences have absolutely no grasp of a materialist conception of society.

              • Posted December 13, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

                JohnC

                “And the difference between moral beliefs and morality is?”

                The difference between people believing the world is flat and the reality of the globe itself.

        • Posted December 13, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

          JohnC,

          “This change is as much an objective “fact” as Lincoln’s presidency, and it indicates the “moral truth” of miscegenation has undergone a reversal of polarity.”

          Or it indicates it was not a moral truth to begin with, or that people can be in error concerning moral truth.

          • JohnC
            Posted December 13, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

            Moral truths are not statements about the natural world (the domain of science), but statements about social reality, which is historically contingent.

            • Posted December 14, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

              Moral truths are not statements about the natural world

              Sorry to hear you’re no longer part of the natural world. I still am, thank goodness.

  17. Myron
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    If the phrase “objective knowledge” is not to be pleonastic, there should be a distinction between objective and subjective knowledge. But what is subjective knowledge? It is either the same as belief or subjective certainty, or it is the same as private knowledge, i.e. introspectively gained self-knowledge (e.g. that I am hungry now). Objective knowledge is then public knowledge.

  18. TJR
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Can’t help thinking that there is little or no substantive disagreement here, just different definitions of “science”, “scientism”, “truth”, “philosophy” etc etc.

    Maybe to avoid confusion we need to set up an organisation which will produce final definitions for each of these words, and then anyone who disagrees with them will be persecuted and, if they persist in their heresy, burnt at the stake.

    Or is that going a bit far?

    • JohnC
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      All properly formed philosophical arguments turn on the precise — but inevitably different — definition of terms. We’d have to burn all philosophers :)

      • TJR
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:00 am | Permalink

        Furthermore, the head of this organisation must be seen to be always right, so we should declare that his statements are infallible.

        He needs to be someone who has always been very keen on linguistic exactitude, although he might have mellowed with age.

        So, ideally the head should be a former grammar-nazi.

  19. cf
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    An appeal from National Center for Science Education for people to help review Texas textbooks for creationist/ID ideology.

    We need your help! Nominations due by Dec 14, 2012.

    http://ncse.com/taking-action/texas-textbooks-review

    (I have posted this before in the hope of gaining more exposure to the request.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      Please stop posting this on the threads; it does not belong here. If you wish to publicize it, email me and let me decide. But don’t put irrelevant appeals on threads.

      Thank you

  20. Sastra
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    I think that any discussion on objective vs. subjective ‘truth’ needs to deal with what we call “inter-subjective.” If it doesn’t, it’s going to constantly founder on a false dichotomy.

    Science uses the inter-subjective to form assumptions about what’s objective. “Objective” moral truths, however, can only be inter-subjective. They need subjects.

    Even if God exists, why care about God? Its moral authority would still depend on intersubjective consent.

  21. MAUCH
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I’m confused. If I assert that I have a truth that is beyond science then the only way that I can prove to you that this truth is valid is to show you evidence and show where other experts also support my assertion. If I do that then aren’t I attempting to mutate this inner truth into science, a science derived from inconclusive and faulty data and bad peer review?

  22. JBlilie
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    … science goes ahead and accomplishes things: we find out what causes disease and then find cures; we put people on the Moon; we build computers and lasers.

    Dr. C.: I’m assuming you are including us engineers in “science.” We do use scientific results to execute useful products.

    A friend related a story from his university days. In a mechanical engineering examination, a student asked if he could assume zero friction in the bearings. The professor repplied, “no, all the zero-friction bearings are kept in the Physics Department.”

  23. Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    I love this piece for many reasons, but especially for the paragraph beginning “My answer to this claim is this: ‘so fricking what?’” I have begun tuning out the claims that science is just one competing epistemology. The truth is that science doesn’t bother competing in theology classrooms; science is busy actually doing things! To say that scientific has an equal claim to “truth” as religion because both are epistemologies is akin to saying that Richard Dawkins has an equal claim to cultural relevance as Victoria Beckham because they’re both British. It might somehow be technically true, but it doesn’t say anything about the world we live in that anyone needs to know.

  24. KDK1
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Let’s assume that the view put forward in the original post, and in many of the supportive comments, is correct and that there are no objective moral truths. And let us also assume that the original post is correct and that science only deals with, and is the only thing which yields, objective truths. Since morality is clearly important for our lives, science is clearly an inappropriate means of studying, and resolving, some important issues in our lives – moral issues for example. Thus scientism is false inasmuch as there are important issues which are inaccessible to the scientific methodology.

    • Gary W
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      What do you mean by “morality” if not moral beliefs (meaning, beliefs about how people ought to behave)? Science can certainly study and influence moral beliefs.

      If by “morality” you mean propositions about how people ought to behave that are objectively true (meaning, true independently of whether anyone believes they are true), I deny that there is any such thing as morality, so defined.

      • Steve Stark
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

        I mean that inasmuch as science yields truth (which is the claim), and inasmuch as there are no moral truths (which is also the claim), then science is not an appropriate method of resolving moral issues.

        This is because it will either yield non-truths and the first claim will be false. Or else it will yield truths (as always), and the second claim will be false.

        So you can define the things any way you want, but as long as you remain consistent, the two claims cannot both be true and science be an appropriate way to resolve moral issues.

        • Gary W
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

          What do you mean by “resolving moral issues?” How can moral beliefs be “resolved” if they are neither true nor false?

          • Steve Stark
            Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

            In terms of their consistency from (almost universally) agreed starting points via logic and argument. That is, by doing philosophy. A good example of how we might attempt this being John Rawls’ veil of ignorance.

            • Gary W
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

              So by “resolving moral issues,” all you mean is determining whether a set of moral beliefs is logically consistent, not whether they are objectively true.

              • Steve Stark
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

                By “resolving moral issues” I meant coming to decision about whether we ought to do such and such, or whether we ought to allow such and such and so on. And my point was that if these are not objective truths, and science only deals with objective truths, then such issues must be resolved non-scientifically (and such issues must be resolved). So my point was about the inconsistency of supporting scientism, while claiming science dealt only in objective truth, while claiming morality had no objective truth.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

                By “resolving moral issues” I meant coming to decision about whether we ought to do such and such, or whether we ought to allow such and such and so on.

                If that’s what you mean by “resolving moral issues,” I have no idea why you think that “science is not an appropriate method of resolving moral issues.” We make decisions about whether we ought to do or allow something in part on what science tells us about the effects of doing and allowing it. For example, we don’t allow people to drink and drive because science tells us that it’s dangerous.

    • dguller
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      Another way of looking at this is that science is supposed to deal with facts and truths, i.e. what is the case. However, it does not help at all with what ought to be the case, i.e. normative issues, which involve ethics and morality. But if that is true, then science does not help us understand why we ought to care about empirical truth enough to even utilize science at all.

      • Gary W
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

        But if that is true, then science does not help us understand why we ought to care about empirical truth enough to even utilize science at all.

        Nothing can tell us what we “ought” to care about, because all beliefs about “oughts” (that is, moral beliefs) are ultimately a matter of preference, not fact.

        • dguller
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

          Nothing can tell us what we “ought” to care about, because all beliefs about “oughts” (that is, moral beliefs) are ultimately a matter of preference, not fact.

          That’s fine. Then you have absolutely no grounds to criticize anyone who rejects scientism, because no-one ought to care about the truth, which means that no-one ought to care about anything that you say to persuade them of the truth. So, why are you trying to persuade people when there is no reason to do so, because the only good reasons are those derived from scientific inquiry?

          • Gary W
            Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

            Huh? Of course I have grounds to criticize them. We try to persuade people to believe certain propositions or behave in certain ways in order to serve our preferences.

            • dguller
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

              Gary:

              Huh? Of course I have grounds to criticize them. We try to persuade people to believe certain propositions or behave in certain ways in order to serve our preferences.

              So, I ought to take your arguments seriously, because it would serve your preferences? Wow. That’s pretty compelling stuff. Why should I serve your preferences, though? Even better, what scientific grounds do you have that I ought to serve your preferences?

              The bottom line is that if science has nothing to say about normative factors, and science is the only means of knowing anything, then we cannot know anything about normative factors, and thus anything that we say about normative factors has absolutely no grounding, except in our personal preferences, which are not compelling at all. In fact, it undermines every human activity that involves normative factors, which happens to include science itself, and thus this entire line of reasoning ends up compromising science. After all, science is only useful if we have a use for it, and all our uses are fundamentally rooted in normativity, including that we ought to care about the truth.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

                So, I ought to take your arguments seriously, because it would serve your preferences?

                No, you ought to take my arguments seriously because they are valid and you (presumably) care about valid arguments.

                Yes, science cannot show whether moral beliefs are true or false. Nothing can show whether moral beliefs are true or false, because moral beliefs are *preferences*, not matters of truth. That doesn’t mean you have “no grounds” for trying to persuade people to behave in the ways you prefer them to behave. For example, if you “believe that murder is wrong” — meaning that you prefer that people do not commit murder — then you have a reason to try and persuade them not to commit murder.

              • dguller
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

                Gary:

                No, you ought to take my arguments seriously because they are valid and you (presumably) care about valid arguments.

                But why should I care about valid arguments? What scientific experiment has demonstrated this?

                Yes, science cannot show whether moral beliefs are true or false. Nothing can show whether moral beliefs are true or false, because moral beliefs are *preferences*, not matters of truth. That doesn’t mean you have “no grounds” for trying to persuade people to behave in the ways you prefer them to behave. For example, if you “believe that murder is wrong” — meaning that you prefer that people do not commit murder — then you have a reason to try and persuade them not to commit murder.

                I have a reason to try to persuade them, but they have no reason to listen to me, unless they already shared my preferences. That has to include the preference to desire to know the truth, which is the underlying preference to justify the use of science to begin with. And that means that the very usefulness of science is predicated upon a subjective preference. That seems to be a flimsy foundation, indeed.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

                But why should I care about valid arguments?

                Because they help you achieve your goals. Behaving in accordance with invalid arguments — arguments involving false premises or invalid reasoning — is likely to cause you harm.

                I have a reason to try to persuade them, but they have no reason to listen to me, unless they already shared my preferences.

                Yes they do. No one is infallible. If they realize that their current preference may be the result of bad reasoning or false beliefs of fact they know that something you say may cause them to change their preference.

              • dguller
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

                Gary:

                Because they help you achieve your goals. Behaving in accordance with invalid arguments — arguments involving false premises or invalid reasoning — is likely to cause you harm.

                Again, you are presupposing the objective validity of normative statements. If all normative statements are just personal preferences, then they are not universally binding, and are only applicable to those who share those preferences. The important question is why anyone should share your preferences, and how you could ever persuade someone to do so, if they did not already share them to begin with? And if most people shared the same underlying preferences, even if they were not consciously aware of them, then wouldn’t that be the basis for an objective morality?

                Yes they do. No one is infallible. If they realize that their current preference may be the result of bad reasoning or false beliefs of fact they know that something you say may cause them to change their preference.

                Exactly. But they already have to have the preference in potency that you have actualized by virtue of your reasoning. And it can be construed as an objective fact that human beings share the same underlying preferences, whether they are potential or actual, and this can be used as the foundation for an objective morality. Any thoughts?

              • Gary W
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

                Again, you are presupposing the objective validity of normative statements.

                No I’m not. You asked me why you should care about valid arguments and I explained that valid arguments are more likely to help you achieve your goals — like avoiding harm — than invalid ones.

                If all normative statements are just personal preferences, then they are not universally binding, and are only applicable to those who share those preferences. The important question is why anyone should share your preferences, and how you could ever persuade someone to do so, if they did not already share them to begin with?

                I just told you: if their preference results from bad reasoning or false beliefs of fact (as preferences often do) then you might persuade them to change their preference by explaining those errors to them.

                And if most people shared the same underlying preferences, even if they were not consciously aware of them, then wouldn’t that be the basis for an objective morality?

                No, of course not. Just because most people believe something doesn’t make it objectively true. Even if everyone believed the earth was flat, that belief would still be objectively false. No matter how many people believe that something is morally right (or wrong), that belief is still just a preference, not a proposition that is either true or false.

              • John Scanlon, FCD
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 7:58 am | Permalink

                Well, dguller, if you don’t care about the truth, I think you ought to be declared legally and morally incompetent (to drive, hold public office, negotiate contracts etc).

                That’s my preference, and I don’t make a scientific argument of it because there is no objective truth about that ‘ought’. But if everyone in the world knows that you don’t care about the truth of any empirically determinable matter, they’ll know exactly how trustworthy you are.

              • dguller
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

                John:

                Well, dguller, if you don’t care about the truth, I think you ought to be declared legally and morally incompetent (to drive, hold public office, negotiate contracts etc).

                The point is that there is nothing that you can do to justify the need to care about the truth if your account of normativity is just personal preference akin to taste in fashion styles. If you are willing to coerce, punish and engage in punitive measures against me, then it seems that you look upon normative behavior as less like personal taste, and more like something more significant, which is great, actually.

                That’s my preference, and I don’t make a scientific argument of it because there is no objective truth about that ‘ought’. But if everyone in the world knows that you don’t care about the truth of any empirically determinable matter, they’ll know exactly how trustworthy you are.

                I never said that I didn’t care about the truth. Obviously, I do, otherwise I would not be debating the issue here. The point is that if I didn’t care, you would have absolutely no grounds to debate the point with me. If it is all a matter of personal taste, then my taste is different from yours, and that’s the end of that. Since that is not the case, it follows that it cannot be a matter of personal taste and preference akin to what music you like. That is why you would never cheer bigots who gang assault a minority, because they are just expressing their preferences.

            • dguller
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

              Gary:

              No, of course not. Just because most people believe something doesn’t make it objectively true. Even if everyone believed the earth was flat, that belief would still be objectively false. No matter how many people believe that something is morally right (or wrong), that belief is still just a preference, not a proposition that is either true or false.

              That’s not what I’m saying. I’m talking about human nature. If human beings share the same nature, and that nature is characterized by, amongst other things, sharing the same set of fundamental values, but individuals and societies differ in terms of the relative ranking and ordering of those values, then it certainly seems feasible to scientifically study different ways of living and compare them according to which maximizes the number of actualized values and which minimizes the number of actualized values. It would likely turn out that democratic societies maximize more fundamental values than totalitarian and dictatorial societies, for example.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

                Yes, of course science can study what people believe and why they believe as they do. And science may also be able to identify which kinds of moral beliefs are most conducive to societal success.

                But that’s not the issue. The issue is whether moral beliefs are objectively true or false. A moral belief may be socially beneficial, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.

              • dguller
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

                Gary:

                But that’s not the issue. The issue is whether moral beliefs are objectively true or false. A moral belief may be socially beneficial, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.

                For a moral belief to be objectively true in the relevant sense, the belief must be about an action that a person ought to do, and for reasons grounded in human nature, rather than in personal taste, preference or wish. Like I said, I think it is true that all human beings share the same fundamental values – such as the need for community, the sanctity of life, the freedom to choose, the need for respect, the need to be productive and useful, the avoidance of pain, the experience of pleasure, the triumph of accomplishment, and so on – and that well-being consists in maximizing these values according to how one lives one’s life.

                I don’t see why this could not be studied objectively by science in order to determine what ways of living maximize our well-being in the sense that I’ve outlined. Personal preference could be in lying to oneself by choosing a way of life that will have minimal well-being, but deceiving oneself to believe the opposite. That could be construed as a kind of bias, akin to the biases to scientific studies attempt to control for and minimize, because they skew the results away from an objective finding. But it is a fact determined by human nature that we share the same values, even if biases can exist that distort our choices away from maximizing well-being.

                Any thoughts?

              • Gary W
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

                For a moral belief to be objectively true in the relevant sense,…

                What sense is that? What do you think it means for a moral belief to be objectively true “in the relevant sense”?

                … the belief must be about an action that a person ought to do, and for reasons grounded in human nature, rather than in personal taste, preference or wish.

                Why must those reasons be “grounded in human nature” rather than grounded in something else? And your distinction doesn’t make sense, because “personal taste, preference and wish” can obviously be “grounded in human nature” anyway.

                Like I said, I think it is true that all human beings share the same fundamental values – such as the need for community, the sanctity of life, the freedom to choose, the need for respect, the need to be productive and useful, the avoidance of pain, the experience of pleasure, the triumph of accomplishment, and so on – and that well-being consists in maximizing these values according

                But the question isn’t about whether actions will maximize human well-being. It’s about whether actions are objectively moral (i.e., whether we ought to take those actions, regardless of what people believe about whether we ought to take them). How do you know that maximizing human well-being is objectively moral?

      • Vaal
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

        dguller,

        I think you’ve been making some good points here.

        People who deny the possibility of objective morality do tend to get tied in some knots of their own making. (Then again, some proponents of objective morality suffer the same problems, but I think that is due to erroneous specific theories on their part, e.g. theistic theories of objective morality).

        Anyway, about this:

        “Another way of looking at this is that science is supposed to deal with facts and truths, i.e. what is the case. However, it does not help at all with what ought to be the case, i.e. normative issues, which involve ethics and morality. But if that is true, then science does not help us understand why we ought to care about empirical truth enough to even utilize science at all.”

        I’ve brought up an objective value theory here several times so I don’t want to blather too much about it. But in a nutshell: I think in principle science can not only inform us about what we ought to do (in terms of what will fulfill our desires/goals…which is not terribly controversial) but also what we “ought to care about” as well, where I take “ought to care about” to equate to “what we ought to desire.”

        The reasoning in far too brief a nutshell:
        “Ought” statements concern prescriptions for action. The only reasons for actions that exist come from desires. And the only way value arises is in the relationship between a desire and that which fulfills desires.
        So “X is valuable insofar as X is such as to fulfill the desire(s) in question.”
        We can make objective truth claims about what state-of-affairs, and what actions, will tend to fulfill given desires. (e.g. taking the A train to boston will fulfill your desire to get to Boston by 7:00 tonight. It’s an empirical claim, which can be true or false).

        “ought” statements can be best understood as a claim about the relationship between a desire and a state of affairs that will (or is likely to…we don’t have to pretend absolute knowledge) fulfill the desire in question. Hence, ought statements are objective – they can be true or false.

        Following this logic through: All ought statements, since they prescribe actions, only make sense by having a basis in desires and the states of affairs where desires are fulfilled. So “moral oughts” would simply be a certain category of oughts: they concern the desires that we have reasons to promote or discourage among one another – i.e. within social groups/society. Desires that we can universalize, as it were. A Desire is “good” insofar as it has the tendency to fulfill other desires; bad if it has the tendency to thwart other desires. (This is not arbitrary, because if this value theory is sound, then value and ought arise in just this desires-states of affairs that fulfill desires manner).

        So, desires exist. States of affairs that do or can fulfill desires exist. And there would be objective, empirical facts about which desires have the tendency of fulfilling the more and stronger desires within a society. (e.g., does the desire to rape increase desire thwarting in a society, or reduce it?). And therefore in principle science in many instances could tell us through it’s inquiry methods which desires have desire-fulfilling tendencies, and hence “what we ought to desire.”

        If’n ya see what I’m gettin’ at…

        Cheers,

        Vaal

        • Gary W
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

          What you’re describing is preference utilitarianism. You’re just using slightly different language (“fulfillment of desires” rather than satisfaction of preferences). How do you know that we ought to satisfy preferences?

          • Vaal
            Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

            Not quite, Gary. Yes they are close, but not identical. First, I have not found preference utilitarianism to be as precise as Desire Utilitarianism (or “Desirism” as it is now called). Sort of like how I think Sam Harris is on the right track towards an objective morality, but his axiom concerning the “well-being of conscious creatures” is too vague to answer some obvious questions that arise.

            Secondly, preference utilitarianism is a form of act utilitarianism. Desirism is more rule-utilitarianism.

            “How do you know that we ought to satisfy preferences?”

            You mean satisfy desires?

            Well, if the theory is sound as described, then the question is already answered.
            One would have to show where the reasoning fails to deny it. If desires do not give us reasons for actions…what does? And if desires provide reasons for actions, if we don’t seek to actualize states of affairs because of our desires, then what else COULD provide reasons for actions? And if ought statements are by their nature prescriptions for actions, how can they not be based on fulfilling desires?

            If you can provide some alternate reasons-for-actions that exist, which will make sense absent any appeal to desires, I’m all ears. I just haven’t seen it done convincingly.

            Vaal.

            • Gary W
              Posted December 13, 2012 at 10:07 am | Permalink

              One would have to show where the reasoning fails to deny it. If desires do not give us reasons for actions…what does? And if desires provide reasons for actions, if we don’t seek to actualize states of affairs because of our desires, then what else COULD provide reasons for actions? And if ought statements are by their nature prescriptions for actions, how can they not be based on fulfilling desires?

              Obviously, because they can be based on some other kind of prescription for actions, like maximizing human welfare, or obeying certain rules. Even within consequentialism, there are many different theories. You just acknowledged this with your claim that “fulfilling desires” is not the same thing as “satisfying preferences.”

              • Vaal
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

                Gary W,

                “on some other kind of prescription for actions, like maximizing human welfare,”

                But “maximizing human welfare” isn’t foundational enough an axiom. You can still intelligibly ask “why should I maximize human welfare?” (Maybe some other beings, Aliens or a God, don’t want to maximize our welfare…so how is this axiom logically cogent for them? Or to someone who just doesn’t want to maximize human welfare?

                It only makes sense to say we ought to do something like maximize our welfare IF WE DESIRE such a state of affairs. If there were no one who desired such a thing, what possible reason is left on which to base that axiom? So desire fulfillment is at the root of making sense of such things. It is more fundamental than “maximizing welfare.”

                (As it turns out, building from the foundation of desire-fulfillment, you do tend toward maximizing welfare…as most rational beings desire their own welfare).

                As for “satisfying preferences” if by “preference” the preference utilitarian means the same thing I’m talking about “desire,” then we’d be on the same foundational page – not a different axiom.

                However, I have not found a really precise definition of “preference” thus far from preference utilitarianism, as I have found in Desirism (e.g. a Desire is a mental attitude toward a proposition: that the proposition in question is to be made or kept true: e.g. if I have the desire that my house be the color blue, my desire gives me motivation to paint it blue if it’s not blue, or in the case it is already blue, keep it that color).

                And, again, what I’ve seen from preference utilitarianism is it’s an act-based theory, so actions are it’s central object of evaluation. Whereas Desirism holds desires themselves to the be the central object of evaluation. So in an act-based theory “the ACT that maximizes the most desires fulfilled” runs into issues like what happens when a majority have harmful desires (e.g. in a society in which slavery is accepted)? Or an example:

                You have a room with 16 rapists and one woman. So you’ve got 16 people desiring to rape, and only one person desiring not to be raped. It seems the act that will fulfill the most desires will be for the rapists to act on their desires. 16:1. Sorry lady.

                In contrast, Desirism evaluates the desires themselves: does the desire in question have the tendency (once instilled in a person) to thwart other desires (bad), or to fulfill other desires (good)?
                So compare possible desires: In the rape scenario, you may have 16 desires to rape being fulfilled (though in practice, it seems likely some of those desires would not be fulfilled like others), and one person’s strong desires thwarted (victim).

                What if instead we promoted the desire to respect the autonomy and desires of another person into all these people? For instance: the desire to have sex ONLY when it is desired by the other party?

                Well, if THAT were the prevailing desire, then you’d have no desire to rape in the room (as the desire to rape is a desire to have sex with someone who does not desire it). We wouldn’t have desires-to-rape being thwarted nor would we have a victim’s desires being thwarted.

                And, in fact, if you really look at the underlying basis for how we try to live best with one another, it tends to involve trying to promote desire-fulfilling desires in one another. We raise our kids trying to promote such desires-to-do-the-right-things, and desires for other people’s welfare as well as our own.

                Acts are of course still evaluated, but still on the basis of desire fulfillment. A “good” desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desire. A good act is “an action that a person with good desires would take.” (Clearly rape would not be a good act, as it’s not an action someone with good desires would be compelled to take).

                And, as argued before, the relationship between desires and what will in fact fulfill other desires is an objective relationship. They are objective claims about reality that you can be right and wrong about.

                Cheers,

                Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

                It only makes sense to say we ought to do something like maximize our welfare IF WE DESIRE such a state of affairs. If there were no one who desired such a thing, what possible reason is left on which to base that axiom?

                Any other reason we think we have for acting. As I said, there are many forms of consequentialism, as well as non-consequentiast moral theories. Kantian ethics are about duties. Aristotelian ethics are about virtue.

                Your proposed distinction between preference utilitarianism and your “desirism” doesn’t make sense. Your claim that actions are preference utilitarianism’s “central object of evaluation” is false. Its central object of evaluation is *preferences*. Acts are moral to the extent that they satisfy preferences. And maximizing the fulfillment of desires means choosing between competing desires. The prevailing desire is a *preference*.

              • Vaal
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

                Gary W,

                I asked, in the absence of any desires – how could we have reasons for actions? (Including acting to maximize welfare?)

                To answer:

                “Any other reason we think we have for acting.”

                Is obviously a non-answer.

                I know that there are other moral/value theories. The question is whether they make sound arguments for accepting their axioms.

                Kantian ethics are about duties.

                Sure. I know. I think there is some excellent substance to Kant’s view about universalizing reasons for actions, and part of that figures into reasoning about what desires we could sensibly universalize. I just don’t find it goes deep enough to explain where the reasons come from. Sam with Virtue Ethics.

                As to the difference between preference utilitarianism and Desirism, IF they happen to be the same thing, then that would be fine. The same thing by different names. However, from what I’ve seen when looking into preference utilitarianism, it seems less precise, and also tends to emphases acts. Yes both preference utilitarianism and Desirism view desire fulfillment as the source of value, but generally preference utilitarianism asks “Which ACTIONS ought we promote that will result in the most desires fulfilled?’ whereas Desirism asks “Which DESIRES ought we promote, that will have the tendency of fulfilling more desires?” I’ve already given an example of the consequences in emphasizing one over the other. Look into preference utilitarianism and you’ll see the critique over and over that it raises the problem of “what if a majority happen to have harmful desires?” (Often lobbed at Hare’s preference utilitarianism). That’s the type of problem you get into if you are evaluating acts-that-fullfill-the-most-desires vs desires-that-fulfill-the-most-desires.

                Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

                I know that there are other moral/value theories. The question is whether they make sound arguments for accepting their axioms. The question is whether they make sound arguments for accepting their axioms.

                Huh? Axioms are the foundational premises of arguments. All arguments bottom out in axioms that are taken to be self-evidently true. What arguments do you offer for your axioms?

                I just don’t find it goes deep enough to explain where the reasons come from. Same with Virtue Ethics.

                Then neither do you. The point is that other moral theories offer reasons for acting other than “fulfillment of desires.”

                Yes both preference utilitarianism and Desirism view desire fulfillment as the source of value, but generally preference utilitarianism asks “Which ACTIONS ought we promote that will result in the most desires fulfilled? whereas Desirism asks “Which DESIRES ought we promote, that will have the tendency of fulfilling more desires?”

                Another claim that doesn’t make any sense. Desires aren’t fulfilled by desires. They’re fulfilled by actions. Same as preferences. And the prevailing desire about how to act is a preference, as I already explained.

                The well-known problems of preference utilitarianism apply to your “desirism” too — which isn’t surprising since it’s the same thing. The question of how we ought to choose between conflicting desires implies the need for a separate moral theory to answer that question.

              • Vaal
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

                Gary W,

                Yes *in any particular theory* an axiom is the foundational assumption. But one can argue for accepting an axiom (and those tend to be by appealing to consistency with other theories that we share). In other words, axioms can be justified, typically by what follows from accepting the axiom, and examining it in relationship to the other lines of reasoning that we accept. In fact, that’s what most philosophers are doing: providing justification for their claims concerning the axioms they assert (Descartes spent a lot of time in his Meditation and Principles doing just that: giving arguments for why one ought to accept Cogito ergo sum as axiomatic).

                If someone claims an axiom is “self-evidently true” he takes on the burden of arguing why one ought to agree. No one would bother listening to me if I claimed it “self evidently true” that I am the foundation of all morality. I’d have to argue for why this is an indisputable axiom, that one denies at pain of contradiction or incoherence, etc.
                One would have a much better chance of justifying an axiom like “an experience is as it seems to me, unless I have reasons to doubt it.” (Because this explains how we manage to reason about experience, and someone denying this axiom will end up in incoherence).

                When it comes to moral/value theories, what they do is argue for how it is value does, or could exist, how it arises, it’s nature, and what follows from it’s nature.
                As well, it has to comport in some foundational, serious way with what most people are thinking of when they think of the domain of “morality.” Otherwise…what would we be talking about?

                So when you say “what arguments do you offer for your axioms?”…I’ve already given a portion. The argument is that value only arises as a relationship between
                desires and states of affairs that would fulfill desires. This explains why, for instance,
                a certain family photo may be on object of great value to you – because having it fulfills some strong desire YOU have – but would not be of value to me, since it satisfies no desire I have. So it’s explanatory of what value is and how it works in the real world. It makes sense of what we value, and gives the basis for our prescriptive statement, without which our prescriptive statements would not make sense.

                In order to deny the argument, you should point out how it does not, in fact, make sense of how and why people value things, and show that desires are not necessary in providing reasons for our actions. That’s why I ask you to give some other basis – if this Desirism theory is wrong, then you should be able to show a more reasonable explanation as to what else explains value, and what else more sensibly is the basis for prescriptions.

                “Another claim that doesn’t make any sense. Desires aren’t fulfilled by desires. They’re fulfilled by actions.”

                That’s right: actions or states of affairs fulfill desires. But ONLY desires provide the reasons for action! That is why it makes sense to concentrate on what desires to promote in one another. If we only concentrated on what actions to take to fulfill desires, we’d be missing the most important piece of the puzzle. Go back to the 16 guys with the desire to rape one woman. They already have these desires. What action would fulfill the most desires given that group of people. Well, allowing the men to rape the woman would do so, based only an assessing which ACTION would fulfill desires. But if you go to the route, that desires come first as reasons for action, and you instead promoted the desire that has the tendency (when instilled in someone) to fulfill other desires, then it suggests a different outcome without someone being victimized as being legitimated.

                I’m afraid this is about as clear as I can get, so if it’s not making sense to you at this point it’s probably time to let this go for now. (And I don’t mean you ought to be accepting this theory simply based on what I’ve written here. Just food for thought I figure). Thanks.

                Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

                Your comments are way too long, full of tedious digressions and annoyingly didactic. I don’t think you’ve answered the problems in your position that I described.

  25. dguller
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    The law of non-contradiction is necessarily true, and is not derived from empirical observation or replicated experiments. It is not derived from anything, but rather stands as as necessary and prerequisite truth of any form of reasoning and knowledge. You could not derive anything or even coherently understand empirical observations or replicated experiments without presupposing its truth. Therefore, it is a truth that is not demonstrated by empirical science at all.

    Any thoughts?

    • impulse
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      Quantum superposition?

      • dguller
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        First, if quantum superposition actually violated the law of non-contradiction, then you could not even say that it violated the LNC. To say X presupposes that you are not also saying not-X and without that limitation rooted in the LNC, you are always hovering around incoherence, i.e. saying both X and not-X.

        Second, if the LNC is falsified by quantum superposition, then all logical inference is compromised, including the inferences involved in quantum superposition, because if the LNC is false, then you can perform a reductio ad absurdum for any proposition.

        Third, I like to think of the quantum superposition as a potentiality, and like all potentialities, you can have contradictions without violating the LNC. After all, water has the potential to be both solid and liquid, but no-one would count this as a violation of the LNC. If you had an instance of water that was both solid and liquid at the same time and in the same sense, then that would violate the LNC. Similarly, the quantum superposition is just a potentiality, and thus can admit of contradictory properties without actually violating the LNC.

        Fourth, as a potentiality, the superposition is not an actual thing or entity. It is a mathematical abstraction that is used to calculate probabilities. After all, no-one has ever empirically observed a quantum superposition, which means that, according to scientism, it does not actually exist. So, the most accurate predictive theory we have is actually rooted in something non-existent.

        • Steve Stark
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

          Superposition is not even an example of P & not-P. It’s an example of P & Q. To falsify the LNC it would have to be both in position P and not in position P, but its being in position P (if that’s really true) means it’s not true to say it’s not in position P because it is. What superposition falsifies then, if anything, is the claim that something can’t be in two places at once.

        • madmax
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          Sorry there is so much wrong with this.

          First of all, superposition has been empirically observed in many experiments and is exploited in many applications. For example, that is the power of a quantum computer that its memory can be in multiple states at the same time. This means multiple calculations can be performed in a single operation.

          So superposition is not just a mathematical abstraction or a potentiality. It is actually real stuff. This means that two mutually exclusive states can be true at the same time.

          And to say the law of LNC would be compromised is not true either since the superposition effects don’t show in our macroscopic world. You could also use logical inferences for each possible quantum state but you will always end up with a result that is dependent on the state you assumed you began with.

          • dguller
            Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

            Madmax:

            First of all, superposition has been empirically observed in many experiments and is exploited in many applications. For example, that is the power of a quantum computer that its memory can be in multiple states at the same time. This means multiple calculations can be performed in a single operation.

            The consequences of superposition have been observed, but superposition itself has never been observed, because once it is observed, it collapses into a particular eigenstate rather than the superposition of all eigenstates. By definition, it can never be observed. It is postulated to explain what is observed, which is different from actually being observed.

            So superposition is not just a mathematical abstraction or a potentiality. It is actually real stuff. This means that two mutually exclusive states can be true at the same time.

            Great. Can you point a superposition out to me somewhere? If a superposition is empirically real, then it should be amenable to observation. So, point one out with your finger. The bottom line is that you can’t, because the superposition is a mathematical abstraction, and abstractions cannot possibly exist in the empirical world, because they necessarily strip away all particularizing features of concrete entities, which are all that actually empirically exist. Furthermore, why object to its being a potential state? You may as well say that water is actually and really both liquid and solid, because it could be one or the other, which makes absolutely no sense.

            And to say the law of LNC would be compromised is not true either since the superposition effects don’t show in our macroscopic world. You could also use logical inferences for each possible quantum state but you will always end up with a result that is dependent on the state you assumed you began with.

            Great! So, quantum superposition does not falsify the LNC, which just reinforces my point that the LNC is completely foundational for any kind reasoning or understanding whatsoever, and thus cannot coherently be doubted or rejected. And since it is a necessary truth, it cannot be established by science, which deals in contingent truths, which means that there are truths that cannot be discovered by scientific inquiry.

            • madmax
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

              The consequences of superposition have been observed, but superposition itself has never been observed

              Say what?! So we have to actually observe everything directly in order to determine if it is real? Sorry, but that is complete and utter bullshit. If we can observe the effects of something, it is real in every sense that is meaningful.

              Can you point a superposition out to me somewhere? If a superposition is empirically real, then it should be amenable to observation.

              Sure. I already gave the example of the quantum computer. Or for a more easy example, take the double-slit experiment.

              which just reinforces my point that the LNC is completely foundational for any kind reasoning or understanding whatsoever

              No it does not. Lets consider a bit in a classical computer: The bit is either on or off. If is on then it cannot be off. You cannot make such a statement for a quantum bit.

              And btw. you do not have to resort to quantum mechanics to see that the LNC is not foundational. The LNC only makes sense in a logical system with 2 truth values. There are many other different systems of logic which don’t have 2 truth values. Take the IEEE 1164 logic for example which is used to synthesize hardware circuits. It has 9 distinct values. Or take fuzzy logic which has infinitely many truth values.

              Logic is just a tool to model specific things. And the rules for any logic can be defined as you need them to be. You observe the thing you want to model and define your rules accordingly.

              • dguller
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

                Madmax:

                Say what?! So we have to actually observe everything directly in order to determine if it is real? Sorry, but that is complete and utter bullshit. If we can observe the effects of something, it is real in every sense that is meaningful.

                Does that include God? After all, if you are going to include the possibility of truths incapable of empirical observation, then you have opened the door to the supernatural. Do you really want to open that door?

                Sure. I already gave the example of the quantum computer. Or for a more easy example, take the double-slit experiment.

                I asked you how I can observe the quantum superposition directly. You keep giving me examples where I cannot observe the quantum superposition directly, but rather infer its presence by virtue of empirical observations, which I can observe directly. However, the problem is that once you allow unobservable entities that are supposed to explain what you actually observe as counting as “science”, then theology must also count as a science, because it attempts to explain the world that we observe on the basis of entities that we cannot directly observe, but rather infer. Again, I think that this definition of “science” is far too broad to be useful.

                And btw. you do not have to resort to quantum mechanics to see that the LNC is not foundational. The LNC only makes sense in a logical system with 2 truth values. There are many other different systems of logic which don’t have 2 truth values. Take the IEEE 1164 logic for example which is used to synthesize hardware circuits. It has 9 distinct values. Or take fuzzy logic which has infinitely many truth values.

                Let me ask you this. What kind of logical system were you just using to make your argument? Were you trying to describe something true? Or maybe something true2? Or maybe something true97? And if you were trying to demonstrate something other than the truth, then why should I even listen to you? Furthermore, from what I understand, only dialetheism rejects the LNC. Fuzzy logic only rejects the law of exclude middle, or the principle of bivalence. So, it’s not entirely relevant. The bottom line is that if you are interested in truth or falsehood, then the LNC is essential. If you are interested in something else, then good luck to you.

                Logic is just a tool to model specific things. And the rules for any logic can be defined as you need them to be. You observe the thing you want to model and define your rules accordingly.

                What empirical observation would it take to have you reject the LNC?

              • madmax
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

                Does that include God?

                Depends. In principle yes. But in order for that you would need to define what god is supposed to be and then we can see if we can observe any effects which are in accordance with it.

                You keep giving me examples where I cannot observe the quantum superposition directly, but rather infer its presence by virtue of empirical observations, which I can observe directly.

                Ok, I also cannot observe you directly. I only observe your effects. In fact I don’t observe anything directly. So according to you nothing really exists. Awesome. That is why philosophy is so utterly useless and only serves for the purpose of mental masturbation.

                Let me ask you this. What kind of logical system were you just using to make your argument?

                Probably the same as you and I agree that the LNC is foundational for reasoning about truth (in this world). But that is entirely irrelevant to the discussion. You made the claim that logical laws are not based on observation. I showed that this is clearly wrong. Logic is any mechanism that allows reasoning about any objects. And when the concept of binary truth is not applicable or interesting I don’t model it. If we would live in the quantum world we would need a very different type of logic to reason (not that I would have any idea how such a logic would look like)

                What empirical observation would it take to have you reject the LNC?

                This is a useless question. There is probably no observation that would make me reject the LNC. Since we happen to live in a universe that seems to require this principle to make meaningful statements. As I said: If we lived in a universe that worked the same as the quantum world we would need a very different type of logic.

              • dguller
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

                Madmax:

                Ok, I also cannot observe you directly. I only observe your effects. In fact I don’t observe anything directly. So according to you nothing really exists. Awesome. That is why philosophy is so utterly useless and only serves for the purpose of mental masturbation.

                First, although you cannot observe me directly, I can present myself to you, and then you could observe me directly. This is different from the quantum superposition, which disappears as soon as an observation is made, thus making it impossible to ever be directly observed.

                Second, you do observe things directly. When you are staring at the computer screen, you are observing it directly. If you stare at a monitor that displays your computer screen, then you observing it indirectly. That’s all I mean by “directly”.

                Probably the same as you and I agree that the LNC is foundational for reasoning about truth (in this world).

                Great.

                But that is entirely irrelevant to the discussion. You made the claim that logical laws are not based on observation.

                My claim was that logical laws are not derived from observations, but rather make observations possible. To observe X is to necessarily not observe not-X, for example. Throw that principle aside, and you cannot make any observations at all.

                I showed that this is clearly wrong. Logic is any mechanism that allows reasoning about any objects. And when the concept of binary truth is not applicable or interesting I don’t model it. If we would live in the quantum world we would need a very different type of logic to reason (not that I would have any idea how such a logic would look like)

                First, none of this contradicts my claim. Even if contextual factors affect the choices of which logical rules one utilizes, it does not change the fact that the logical rules themselves are not derived from empirical observations as inductive inferences and probabilistic hypotheses. One can use empirical observations to elucidate them, but that is not how they are derived, especially foundational ones, such as the LNC.

                Second, could you please walk me through exactly how you first make an observation, and only afterwards choose a logical system. Notice that in order for your claim to work, you would have to avoid using any logic whatsoever prior to or during the observation, but only afterwards. That just does not seem possible, because to infer anything from an observation already presupposes a set of logical rules of inference.

                Third, I don’t think there is any good reason to think that the quantum world operates in such a way as to violate the LNC. Any examples of where it does? We already agree that quantum superposition does not serve as a counter-example.

                This is a useless question. There is probably no observation that would make me reject the LNC. Since we happen to live in a universe that seems to require this principle to make meaningful statements. As I said: If we lived in a universe that worked the same as the quantum world we would need a very different type of logic.

                So, in order to understand our world, not a hypothetical one, we necessarily require the LNC in order to say anything meaningful at all. Perhaps in a radically different universe that operated according to radically different logical rules, things would be different, but since we can’t even conceive of what that would be like, it does not seem to be a relevant point.

                And if you want to say that our logical rules are derived exclusively from our empirical observations, then there is no justification to use them in contexts that go beyond those observations. After all, like you said, our aspects of reality may operate according to different logical rules, and so who knows if ours extends into those areas of reality anyway? Maybe the rules of logic are different in different multiverses, such that any conclusions that we currently arrive at regarding how they operate may not even be operative, which is pretty prohibitive towards any knowledge of universes beyond our own.

                The bottom line is that to understand our world, not some hypothetical world that we cannot even conceive of, we need the LNC to even formulate meaningful and coherent propositions, as well as to infer anything from them in a truth-preserving fashion. It is incoherent to reject it, which means that it is neither confirmable nor falsifiable by empirical observations. It is presupposed by any attempt to confirm or falsify anything. It would be like asking the reason to use reason. You have to use reason to justify reason, and thus it is self-justifying.

              • madmax
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 3:18 am | Permalink

                Man, I’m really using the will to live when I am talking to you. I should probably return to my usual rule to not talk to philosophers. Any discussion with a philosopher ends the same way a discussion with a mentally insane person ends: In the end you simply walk away, saying: “yeah, ok”.

                I can present myself to you, and then you could observe me directly.

                How do I know that you can present yourself to me? You might as well be a bot training for the turing test. So until you actually do I can only observe your effects and that is not the same as being real according to your definition.

                This is different from the quantum superposition, which disappears as soon as an observation is made

                We already established we can see its effects (such as observing that many different calculations are made at the same time). So it is real in every sense that matters.

                Second, you do observe things directly. When you are staring at the computer screen, you are observing it directly. If you stare at a monitor that displays your computer screen, then you observing it indirectly.

                So if I only observe you through a webcam I am only observing you indirectly and according to you that is not enough to make the statement that you exist as a real being? Sorry that is ridiculous. You are not, by any chance, a philosopher?

                My claim was that logical laws are not derived from observations, but rather make observations possible. To observe X is to necessarily not observe not-X, for example. Throw that principle aside, and you cannot make any observations at all.

                Exactly. Welcome to the quantum world in which precisely that is impossible. So if we lived in the quantum world we would need a very different kind of logic.

                Second, could you please walk me through exactly how you first make an observation, and only afterwards choose a logical system.

                See above. In the quantum world the concept of something is X is utterly senseless. Therefore your statement that “to observe X is to necessarity not observe not-X” has absolutely no meaning in the quantum world.

                Your problem is that you only see logic as a given thing that could not be different. You see logic only in the context of our world (and I’ve already given example that even in our world we use different logical systems to model different things).

                Logic is any set of rules that allows a description of something. Or to make a different example. Take LTL logic for example: It has an operator X. Xa means that at the next point in time a is true. That only makes sense in a world with discrete timesteps. In a world with continuous time it is an utterly senseless statement because there is no such thing as a next point in time.

              • dguller
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 5:56 am | Permalink

                Madmax:

                Man, I’m really using the will to live when I am talking to you. I should probably return to my usual rule to not talk to philosophers. Any discussion with a philosopher ends the same way a discussion with a mentally insane person ends: In the end you simply walk away, saying: “yeah, ok”.

                Well, if talking to me makes you want to commit suicide, then walk away right now!

                How do I know that you can present yourself to me? You might as well be a bot training for the turing test. So until you actually do I can only observe your effects and that is not the same as being real according to your definition.

                Yes, but in principle, I could present myself to you. We could arrange a meeting, and if I am a real person, and you are a real person, then we could directly observe one another. We don’t need to get too far into the weeds here.

                We already established we can see its effects (such as observing that many different calculations are made at the same time). So it is real in every sense that matters.

                Okay. The center of gravity in an object, is it real? Or is it a mathematical tool that is used to simplify our calculations. I mean, the effects of the calculations themselves are observable, and since they are based upon the center of gravity, does it follow that the center of gravity is real? We know that the center of gravity is not real, because if it were, then it would imply that only the central part of a ball, for example, has any mass, whereas the surrounding parts have no mass, which is wrong. I think that you will see that just because a mathematical abstraction leads to accurate real world predictions does not necessarily mean that that abstraction is equally real. It could just be a simplifying assumption or an artifact. You could say the same thing about the “average family”. Even though the calculations associated with the average family are useful and lead to accurate predictions does not mean that you will be looking for a family with 2.1 people in it.

                So if I only observe you through a webcam I am only observing you indirectly and according to you that is not enough to make the statement that you exist as a real being? Sorry that is ridiculous. You are not, by any chance, a philosopher?

                The idea is that if, in principle, one could never observe X, and if one says that empirical observation is the only means of verifying the reality of something, then it necessarily follows that X cannot count as real, under this set of rules. Again, because I can, in principle meet you and observe you with my senses, you can count as real. The quantum superposition, by its nature, is unobservable, because once an observation occurs, it collapses into an actual eigenstate rather than a superposition of all possible eigenstates.

                And no, I’m not a philosopher.

                Exactly. Welcome to the quantum world in which precisely that is impossible. So if we lived in the quantum world we would need a very different kind of logic.

                But the quantum world, and the principles under which it operates, do not necessarily violate the LNC. If they did, the entire theory would be incoherent and useless. For example, say you wanted to do a calculation using quantum theory, but you rejected the LNC, then you could never even begin to calculate. You are using the number “4”. Without the LNC, the “4” could also be a “5” or a “6”, and you have absolutely no grounds to keep its content fixed. You couldn’t even get started!

                Rather than blithely reject the LNC, it would be better to reject any interpretation of quantum mechanics that leads to the rejection of the LNC, because the LNC is more fundamental than the particular interpretation. After all, if the interpretation rejects the LNC, then all logical inference involved within the interpretation is compromised, and the interpretation eats itself into incoherence. For example, without the LNC, you cannot use reductio arguments, and without reductio arguments, you have tossed aside most, in not all, mathematical and logical theorems. That’s a pretty high price to pay, I think.

                See above. In the quantum world the concept of something is X is utterly senseless. Therefore your statement that “to observe X is to necessarity not observe not-X” has absolutely no meaning in the quantum world.

                What do you mean? It makes no sense to talk about quarks, for example? Quarks do not have properties? They do not operate according to rules?

                Your problem is that you only see logic as a given thing that could not be different. You see logic only in the context of our world (and I’ve already given example that even in our world we use different logical systems to model different things).

                I agree that there are different logics. I am arguing about the LNC. I think the LNC is so foundational to coherent thought and reasoning that to reject it is to leave only incoherence and absurdity. Think about it. If you reject the LNC, then you cannot even say or think that you have rejected the LNC. And if you cannot say or think anything, then how can you think about alternative logics?

                Logic is any set of rules that allows a description of something. Or to make a different example. Take LTL logic for example: It has an operator X. Xa means that at the next point in time a is true. That only makes sense in a world with discrete timesteps. In a world with continuous time it is an utterly senseless statement because there is no such thing as a next point in time.

                Let’s just focus upon the LNC. I know that there are different models that one can use to understand reality. My claim is that all coherent models necessarily use the LNC. So, bringing forth models that use rules that contradict one another under different contexts does not violate my position at all. Reject the LNC, and then proceed, if you can.

  26. couchloc
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I tried this once before and got no reply from you, so I’ll try once again. It seems to me that you are using an overly broad notion of science. As dguller says above, if “science” includes using empirical observation and pure reason, then you’re going to have to include Aquinas as a scientist, since much of his work involves making rational deductions about various matters. But presumably you don’t want this. The proper way to understand “science” is that it is verifiable knowledge based on observation and experiment. This is what makes science “empirical”. In any case, here is a list of true statements that I think are not known through science. If you disagree it would be good to know why.

    1. I am a thinking thing.
    2. I am conscious.
    3. 5 + 5 = 10
    4. A bachelor is an unmarried male.
    5. If A is larger than B, and B larger than C, then A is larger than C.
    6. One cannot derive ought from is.
    7. An object’s surface cannot be red all over and green all over at once.
    8. The principle of sufficient reason is true.

    • couchloc
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      Here is a key:

      1. introspection
      2. introspection
      3. math
      4. language
      5. logic
      6. ethics
      7. general truth
      8. general truth

    • Alex T
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Some others would fall into the realm of science (eg: consciousness).

      Then there’s the realm of definitions and mathematical deductions which, perhaps due to their abstractness and deduction (not induction) seem to get excluded from science as you’re doing here. I think these are all an application of reason and logic and abstract symbol manipulation so I’m not sure that these are exceptions, but rather very specialized cases.

      Do you really think that math isn’t scientific as Jerry defined above?

      • couchloc
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

        I don’t see how my knowledge that I’m conscious “falls into the realm of science.” I know this immediately with introspection, and without any help of observation or experiment. If consciousness falls into the realm of science, someone needs to explain this to the behaviorists whose raison d’être was to exclude consciousness from psychology because it wasn’t scientific.

        Definitions and areas of pure math are discovered by reason and logic, yes.
        This makes them fall outside science as I understand it. My concern with Jerry’s definition is that calling math science is unhelpful because scientific disciplines are empirical disciplines.

        • dguller
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

          Exactly.

          Either one’s definition of science is sufficiently broad as to include even philosophy and theology as scientific enterprises, or it is sufficiently narrow to exclude the truths of logic and mathematics as not part of human knowledge. Either option is highly problematic, and the best solution is simply to reject scientism and accept that there are other forms of knowledge that are not derived scientifically.

        • Gary W
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

          I’m think you’re quibbling over words. “Introspection” is part of science. Scientists make observations and reason from those observations to produce knowledge.

          • couchloc
            Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

            Thanks for your response. I don’t see how this is quibbling over words. BF Skinner and Watson excluded introspective psychology from the discipline of psychology because they saw introspective evidence as subjective, and not verifiable in experimental contexts. So it had to be kept out of science. If you want to accept that introspection is part of science, then it seems you are committed to subjective, unrepeatable sources of evidence being part of science. This would appear to conflict with all the talk about science being “objective,” which is worrisome. Also someone sitting in their chair thinking about their own thoughts is doing science? Sounds odd.

            • Gary W
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

              What’s the difference between “introspection,” as you are using the word here, and reason? I think that by “introspection” you just mean a particular kind of reasoning. The statement “I think therefore I am” is an expression of reasoning.

              If you insist that reason is not a part of science, but is a distinct method of acquiring knowledge, then we can say that there are no other methods of acquiring knowledge than science and reason. Do you disagree? If so, what are the other methods?

              • couchloc
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

                This is a good point. I think there is a slight difference between “introspection” and “reason” actually. These are both capacities of the mind but they are different capacities. Introspection is something like the direct apprehension of a mental state through inner awareness. For instance, I am introspectively aware of the fact that I am happy right now. I know this immediately through inner inspection. I’m not sure I would say that strictly speaking “reason” is involved in this (though the mind certainly is). When I reason about something this is a process of making inferences and thinking about something. For instance, I may believe that X is true, and then “reason out” the implications of this belief. This reasoning process is not really the same as inner awareness. When a mathematician works on a math problem, they use reason but not necessarily introspection. So if I was being careful I would say the notions should be distinguished.

                Strictly speaking, whether statements 1 or 2 are known through reason or introspection is controversial. Is the Cogito (I think therefore I am) a deduction, or an immediate insight? I’m fine with either answer, because neither implies reliance on empirical evidence.

                I’m sympathetic to the idea that all knowledge is science or reason. But I would prefer to speak more generally still. I would just say that all knowledge is from “reason and evidence based inquiry” where this includes science, math, philosophy, history, logic, and related areas. I think when one says “science is the only way of knowing” this implies the natural sciences and this is too narrow.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

                Well, again, I think you’re just quibbling over words. In what way relevant to the ability to produce knowledge is being “introspectively aware of the fact that I am happy right now” different from being “introspectively aware that I am seeing a star right now” or being “introspectively aware that two different concepts are not the same concept?” All of these phenomena are mental states or mental processes. “Introspectively” is just a noise word that adds nothing relevant.

              • couchloc
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

                I think dguller below at 2:21 replies to this.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

                I responded to his response. I think he’s confusing who has access to a partcular piece of knowledge with whether it qualifies as knowledge. Even if it’s known to only a single individual, it’s still knowledge.

        • Alex T
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

          I don’t see how my knowledge that I’m conscious “falls into the realm of science.” I know this immediately with introspection, and without any help of observation or experiment

          Without quibbling about details, to the extent that you genuinely know that you are conscious, you are making an empirical observation and you have confirmed that others have made similar observations about themselves.

          Definitions and areas of pure math are discovered by reason and logic, yes.
          This makes them fall outside science as I understand it.

          Definitions are only true within the limited abstract realm in which they are created. One could say (as other commenters have done) that this places them outside of science but as the statements of “fact” must always remain abstract, they aren’t knowledge of the world in the way most people understand it. Deduction, mathematics, logic and reason are tools that are used by science to create and test inferences or to generate new hypotheses for testing, but not a means to gain new knowledge of the world.

          How do you see it?

          • couchloc
            Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

            “….to the extent that you genuinely know that you are conscious, you are making an empirical observation and you have confirmed that others have made similar observations about themselves.”

            I don’t understand this really. In my view, “empirical observation” requires the external use of the senses (eyes, ears, nose, etc). Introspection is the inward capacity of the mind to be aware of itself. This is done without the eyes. What statement 2 asserts is that I am aware of myself being conscious on the basis of inner awareness and independent of any source of information from external observation. That’s the traditional way to understand introspection and why the behaviorists were opposed to it.

            On logic, math, etc. I agree that oftentimes these are used as ways of testing and making inferences within “the abstract realm.” But I don’t think I agree that they are not ways of sometimes gaining new knowledge. If I become aware of a logical implication of my view I was unaware of before, don’t I learn something new and hence gain knowledge?

            • Alex T
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

              I don’t understand this really. In my view, “empirical observation” requires the external use of the senses (eyes, ears, nose, etc). Introspection is the inward capacity of the mind to be aware of itself.

              This gets into a lot of thorny issues that I’d really like to avoid. Questions like whether your observation that you are conscious should be enough for others to accept, or whether we accept your observation only because we know ourselves to be conscious and apply other scientific principles to then provisionally accept your claims. And like what we mean by “consciousness”… For the moment, I don’t see why our sense of self is not a sense.

              If I become aware of a logical implication of my view I was unaware of before, don’t I learn something new and hence gain knowledge?

              To start with a list of axioms and derive novel implications, you would use a set of deductions. I would say that this process applies all of the scientific principles which can be applied to abstract symbols. Do you really see this as a separate and distinct method of knowing?

              • couchloc
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

                “I don’t see why our sense of self is not a sense.”

                I agree it is a sense, but it is not an external sense, and so is not part of science.

                “To start with a list of axioms and derive NOVEL implications, you would use a set of deductions…. Do you really see this as a separate and distinct method of knowing?

                Well, if I learn something new by deriving implications I was unaware of, is it not appropriate to say I’ve gained some knowledge? After all, the set of true beliefs I have has increased. Isn’t that a form of coming to know something (even if slightly trivial)?

              • Alex T
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

                I’m not sure why this internal/external sense should be a factor. We have many internal senses – proprioception, levels of CO2, thirst, hunger – yet I think you’d agree these are empirical. Is it just that our understanding of consciousness is so crude at the moment? I thought we do have some means of measuring levels of consciousness by monitoring the brain, and can distinguish between waking, dreaming and sleeping states.

                Well, if I learn something new by deriving implications I was unaware of, is it not appropriate to say I’ve gained some knowledge? After all, the set of true beliefs I have has increased. Isn’t that a form of coming to know something (even if slightly trivial)?

                I agree, I’m just wondering why you don’t think this is a part of science. It’s done through a process of rational, logical investigation. Is it that it doesn’t require all of the traits Jerry listed? It isn’t opposed to empiricism, but because it is abstract it doesn’t require it either. So I see this as a subset of science but it sounds like you’re saying that you see it as distinct. Is that right? Why don’t you think it’s scientific as Jerry described?

              • couchloc
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

                We do have some (indirect) means for measuring levels of consciousness by monitoring the brain. But if we ALSO have a direct method of learning about our mental states distinct from this, then this is a different method from empirical science. That’s all that’s needed in this context.

                I want to say it’s not science when we use introspection because there is no way of independently verifying through objective, repeatable measures whether introspective evidence is reliable. If you want to include it in science, then fine, but then you have to give up the talk about science being “objective,” and I presume Jerry doesn’t want to do that.

              • Alext T
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

                @couchloc,

                I want to say it’s not science when we use introspection because there is no way of independently verifying through objective, repeatable measures whether introspective evidence is reliable.

                Well, as long as we all acknowledge the problems involved with introspection and account for them, I don’t see why this wouldn’t be scientific. We investigate historical events and consider testimony and accounts even though these aren’t “repeatable”. The key is to understand and account for the limitations of one’s observations. If we were to take your observations as gospel then it would no longer be scientific.

                So you’re right, your introspection is not sufficient and we shouldn’t necessarily take your subjective conclusions at face value, but it’s absolutely evidence. Why wouldn’t it be?

                But yes, this has gone on for a while. Lots to think about. I’m sure we’ll mull it over and take it up again after we’ve ruminated on it. I’m happy calling this over for now.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

                I want to say it’s not science when we use introspection because there is no way of independently verifying through objective, repeatable measures whether introspective evidence is reliable.

                Then I think your definition of “science” is absurd. On your account, psychology is not science, because we cannot “independently verifying through objective, repeatable measures” that anything anyone says about their mental states — beliefs, feelings, desires, emotions, etc. — is true.

              • couchloc
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

                Let me make this my last reply. Thanks for your comments.

                This way of viewing science is not simply mine, but Watson’s, who wrote more than anyone I know about the scientific method in relation to psychology. See for yourself.

                http://pages.stern.nyu.edu/~wstarbuc/Janusweb/sld009.htm

            • Gary W
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

              I don’t understand this really. In my view, “empirical observation” requires the external use of the senses (eyes, ears, nose, etc). Introspection is the inward capacity of the mind to be aware of itself. This is done without the eyes.

              But in order to use an observation to produce scientific knowledge, you must be consciously aware of it. If you don’t realize you’ve seen a star through your telescope, you can’t use that observation in your scientific theory. So observation involves conscious awareness just like “introspection” involves conscious awareness. There is no relevant difference with respect to producing knowledge.

              • dguller
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

                Gary:

                But in order to use an observation to produce scientific knowledge, you must be consciously aware of it. If you don’t realize you’ve seen a star through your telescope, you can’t use that observation in your scientific theory. So observation involves conscious awareness just like “introspection” involves conscious awareness. There is no relevant difference with respect to producing knowledge.

                But there is a difference between being subjectively aware of an external object that is publicly observable by other conscious beings versus being subjectively aware of an internal mental state that is only privately observable by yourself. The former would count as objective scientific knowledge, because it is publicly verifiable by empirical means, whereas the latter should not count as objective scientific knowledge, because there is no way to rule out biases and cognitive distortions to leave an objective truth.

                So, conscious and subjective awareness of X is a necessary condition of scientific knowledge, but it is not sufficient, because its sufficiency depends, amongst other things, upon whether X is objectively verifiable by empirical means. To say that it is both necessary and sufficient means that anyone sitting around thinking about their thoughts counts as a scientist, which is just not true.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

                But there is a difference between being subjectively aware of an external object that is publicly observable by other conscious beings versus being subjectively aware of an internal mental state that is only privately observable by yourself.

                That’s a difference in who can possess the knowledge, not whether it is knowledge. In neither case is any method other than observation and reasoning involved in producing the knowledge.

              • dguller
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

                Gary:

                That’s a difference in who can possess the knowledge, not whether it is knowledge. In neither case is any method other than observation and reasoning involved in producing the knowledge.

                So, you agree that someone just thinking about their thoughts is a scientist? That’s all there is to it? After all, they are observing their thoughts and reasoning about them. That’s all that is necessary for science? Again, that seems overly broad and inclusive.

              • couchloc
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

                Agreed.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

                So, you agree that someone just thinking about their thoughts is a scientist?

                No, I don’t agree with you. Reasoning is not “just thinking about thoughts.”

                The word “scientist” is normally reserved for people engaged in professional scientific work. But in the broadest sense of the word, anyone using the methods of science — observation, experiment, reasoning — to produce knowledge is a scientist, whether in a formal context or not.

              • dguller
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

                Gary:

                The word “scientist” is normally reserved for people engaged in professional scientific work. But in the broadest sense of the word, anyone using the methods of science — observation, experiment, reasoning — to produce knowledge is a scientist, whether in a formal context or not.

                Again, it would then follow that Aquinas is a scientist. Do you really want to endorse that conclusion?

              • Gary W
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

                Again, it would then follow that Aquinas is a scientist.

                Would it? What knowledge did Aquinas produce?

              • dguller
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 5:31 am | Permalink

                Gary:

                Would it? What knowledge did Aquinas produce?

                First, would you say that someone utilizing their reason, observation and experiments is a scientist, irrespective of whether they actually hit upon any kind of knowledge? Say someone is studying a particular subject, and is using their reason, observation and experiments, but after about four months of study, comes up with nothing. Would they not be a scientist? Do they have to have results to be considered a scientist?

                Second, Aquinas could be said to have produced knowledge pertaining to metaphysics and epistemology. For example, his account of embodied cognition has some resonance with some contemporary accounts of mind. See http://www.mindmatter.de/resources/pdf/freemanwww.pdf

              • Gary W
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

                First, would you say that someone utilizing their reason, observation and experiments is a scientist, irrespective of whether they actually hit upon any kind of knowledge?

                In the broad sense of “scientist,” yes. They’re obviously not necessarily a *professional* scientist.

                Second, Aquinas could be said to have produced knowledge pertaining to metaphysics and epistemology.

                What knowledge do you think he produced? Please describe this supposed knowledge clearly. You say he produced an “account” of something, but an “account” is not necessarily knowledge.

            • couchloc
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

              Let me make this my last reply. Thanks for your comments.

              This way of viewing science is not simply mine, but Watson’s, who wrote more than anyone I know about the scientific method in relation to psychology. See for yourself.

              http://pages.stern.nyu.edu/~wstarbuc/Janusweb/sld009.htm

    • Gary W
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      All your examples are propositions known to be true through reason. Do you think there are “ways of knowing” other than science and reason? If so, what are they, and what knowledge have they provided?

      • couchloc
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        If you want to say all of the propositions in my list are true and known through reason, then you are committed to saying that philosophy, ethics, logic, and math are scientific disciplines. This would seem to trivialize the notion of “science” in my view. Most people think philosophy and ethics are humanities, for example.

        In addition, if you allow that introspection is a form of scientific knowledge, then when someone sits in their chair thinking all day do you say they are doing science? Doesn’t that stretch the notion of science a little far?

        • Gary W
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

          If you want to say all of the propositions in my list are true and known through reason, then you are committed to saying that philosophy, ethics, logic, and math are scientific disciplines

          Math and logic produce knowledge through reason. If philosophy has produced knowledge, it has also done so through reason. I’m not sure what knowledge you think ethics has produced.

          I don’t think anyone knows whether reason would be possible without sensory perception.

    • Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      1. objective truth is empirical; what you obtain by introspection is just a subjective truth
      2. ditto
      3. empirical (a reification of counting)
      4. opinion (consensus re the meaning of the words – esp. given it’s not unique; a married woman can be a bachelor, if she has a university degree)
      5. see 3
      6. opinion
      7. empirical (unless the onbject is synobill all over, in which case it is both red and green)
      8. opinion

      /@

      • Steve Stark
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        If what you say in your last post is true, then all that shows is how objective truth is relatively less important than was previously supposed. That is, if you insist on using the words you do, it simply means that many important things are not matters of objective fact and not suitable for scientific inquiry. And so so much the worse for science and objective truth. Can’t have it both ways.

        • Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

          ?

          • Steve Stark
            Posted December 12, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

            If the things you call “opinion” really are opinions then opinions are much more than we took opinions to be, and since science can’t deal with matters of opinion science can deal with much less than you’d like to think.

            The point being that as you redefine terms because it gives you rhetorical purchase in this particular argument, you will find that in other arguments about, for example, the scope of scientific inquiry, your position has been whittled down to a shadow of what you want to say there because of what you said here.

            For example, calling language or the meaning of words “opinion” is obvious nonsense, but let’s run with it. What follows, since science deals with objective truth and not opinions, is that non-scientific modes of inquiry must be used to tackle language and the meaning of words. And if that’s true, bye bye scientism because language and meaning are, opinion or no, central aspects of our lives.

            • Posted December 12, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

              Yes, I was being free with the meaning of “opinion”, using to represent a broad class of things that are inter-subjective but consensual and culturally dependent in a way that science is not.

              However, I don’t think your conclusion follows. That someone or some population has a particular “opinion” is an objective fact, even though that “opinion” is not itself an objective fact. Given any set of “opinions,” e.g., religious beliefs in Classical Rome, scientific modes of inquiry can still be used to tackle them, their place in society, their evolution over time, &c., &c.

              Besides, if the meanings of words were objective facts, nobody would be confused were I to say, “I’ll be there momentarily.” In fact, US and British readers will likely have different opinions as to whether I will be there in or for a moment.

              /@

      • couchloc
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for your replies. Here is what I would say in response.

        1. I agree this is a “subjective truth.” What matters is that the claim is true (which you admit). If it is true, then this is a type of knowledge because I know this claim to be true. Indeed, this is my point.

        2. Ditto

        3. I disagree. Pure areas of math are not typically thought of as empirically based. At the very least this is controversial.

        4. No, definitions are not opinions but truths of language. If I say, “a bachelor is a tall chicken in a pink hat” I have said something false. I cannot defend myself by saying “that’s my opinion.” And, yes, women can be “bachelors of arts” but then you are changing the subject.

        5. I don’t see how you could call 5 empirical. The denial of this statement is self-contradictory. But empirical statements don’t have this feature.

        6. Even Jerry admits this is true. If you know of a derivation that works, I would like to see it.

        7. I don’t see how 7 is empirical. I would like to to hear what empirical evidence convinces you of its truth. (How can empirical evidence show us something “cannot” be the case?)

        8. Again, on what grounds do you say it’s opinion?

        • Alex T
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

          4. No, definitions are not opinions but truths of language. If I say, “a bachelor is a tall chicken in a pink hat” I have said something false. I cannot defend myself by saying “that’s my opinion.” And, yes, women can be “bachelors of arts” but then you are changing the subject.

          Definitions are not “truths of language” (and you’re right they aren’t opinions). You can even define a bachelor to be a tall chicken in a pink hat. So what? You haven’t learned anything and it doesn’t give you any mechanism of determining truth.

          5. I don’t see how you could call 5 empirical. The denial of this statement is self-contradictory. But empirical statements don’t have this feature.

          Because it depends on the definition of “greater than” and the abstract space in which you’re applying it. This operator/property does not need to be transitive, though we may define it to be. I’d agree that it’s not empirical, but i disagree that denying it is self-contradictory since it absolutely is not.

          7. I don’t see how 7 is empirical. I would like to to hear what empirical evidence convinces you of its truth. (How can empirical evidence show us something “cannot” be the case?)

          We can empirically test the statement. There may be spaces where your statement is true and spaces where it is not. Your original point was ambiguous – if it’s a mathematical proposition then it isn’t true in all cases (unless you define it to be, heh). If it’s a statement about the world, then again it depends on the mappings and the terminology. With some mappings and terminology we can test it empirically to see how it applies to our real world.

          For example, you can say that two things can’t occupy the same space at the same time, but photons do this all the time. It all depends on what you mean by “thing” (is a photon a “thing”). Here, since “red” is not a thing which covers an object but a property of light, we can just note that two observers will see very different colours depending on their relative motion, so an object can be both red and blue all over, depending on how we measure it.

          • couchloc
            Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

            On 4. and definitions. When you say “So what? You haven’t learned anything….” I think you mean “you haven’t learned anything about the world.” I would agree I haven’t learned anything about the world. But I have learned that a definition is true, and know it to be so. So this is a type of knowledge (it may be trivial, but it’s still nonempirical knowledge).

            On 5 and self-contradictoriness. Ok, if it’s not empirical, then what is it? Once we fix the meaning of the terms then I can know some statement is or isn’t self-contradictory. This knowledge is not lacking because the terms can be defined differently. After all, if we use the common interpretation of “greater than” then 5 is true. If someone asks me, “Do you know this statement is true?” I reply “yes.” Did I say something false?

            On 7. You seem to be playing games with words a little. Given what it means to be a surface and a color, I seem to already know (before doing any testing) that I will NEVER find any objects in the world that have two colors all over the surface at the same time. I’m talking about the reflectance properties of the objects themselves, and not what two observers under varying conditions may observe. There seems to be a ordinary sense in which this statement is clearly true and nonempirical.

            • Alex T
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

              re definitions

              But I have learned that a definition is true, and know it to be so.

              I don’t think anyone can ever learn that a definitions is true. They’re given or not, but they are not learned. You may learn the common definition of an English word, but this process of learning is empirical.

              re 5 and applications of transitive properties – this goes back to an earlier question, of whether deduction (a specific technique within logic) is encompassed within science. Jerry said that “reason” is one of the tools of science, so I’d say this would be scientific, but only a very narrow part.

              On 7. You seem to be playing games with words a little. Given what it means to be a surface and a color, I seem to already know (before doing any testing) that I will NEVER find any objects in the world that have two colors all over the surface at the same time.

              Ah, but how do you know the reflective properties of objects? You know that because you’ve seen a lot of objects and you have observed their properties. You know because we have a deep, scientific understanding of light. This is induction and empiricism at its finest and very much a part of science. How do you imagine that it is not?

              You also say that colour is not empirical but this is absurd. We determine colour through observation. But if that wasn’t enough, I wanted to show that our observations which seem absolute and fixed can actually be different depending on the observer. Of course we can always take relative velocity into account, but this just reinforces my point – it is a scientifically determined property.

              • couchloc
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

                On definitions. You make a good point about learning definitions and that the process is empirical. I agree, but I would say that this is irrelevant. What matters is what justifies our knowledge that the definition is true. What justifies our knowledge is not “how we learned the terms” but “what the terms mean,” and my recognition that the terms “bachelor” and “unmarried male” are equivalent in meaning depends reason.

                On logic. I guess I just think that deduction uses methods that are sufficiently different from other areas of science (ordinary observation and experiment) that it shouldn’t be counted as science. But this sounds like a terminological issue at this point.

                On color. You make a good point here too, but I think there’s a problem not unlike what’s occurring with definitions. Nobody denies that “colors” are learned from empirical observation. This is clearly true. But I would claim that once you have the concept “object’s surface” and “red” and “green” that you don’t have to make any empirical observations to know that 7 is true. You can see it must be true through rational reflection.

              • Alex T
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

                I think I understand your position and you mine. Not sure if we’re entirely in agreement, but I think any more would be quibbling over terms.

                But…

                But I would claim that once you have the concept “object’s surface” and “red” and “green” that you don’t have to make any empirical observations to know that 7 is true. You can see it must be true through rational reflection.

                I think you’re over-simplifying this. Your description is classical empirical induction – we make thousands of observations and so we generalize this into a rule or law. It’s tempting to think that this belief was raised through some other process (eg: rational reflection), yet our rational though and reflection are based on empirical observations, exactly how JAC defined science. If we just rely on our intuition and don’t make it scientific, we’re vulnerable to new observations (eg: relativity, but also microscopic examination show the small-scale components of red objects aren’t red themselves).

            • couchloc
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

              Fair enough. I appreciate your thoughts on this. It would be interesting to know how many times in the history of science claims like 7 have been overturned by empirical advances. If I knew more examples like that it would make your view very appealing.

        • Posted December 12, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

          1. We’re back to definitions of the words we’re debating. I was taking “knowledge” to be “objective facts about the world”. Clearly, each of us knows what we feel or sense, even though those feelings may deceive us (ghost limbs, the invisible gorilla, OOBEs, &c.) Thinking you’re a thinking /being/ may be wrong; you may be a self-aware computer simulation.

          2. You might be dreaming that you’re conscious.

          3. A simple equality such as your example is something that can be evaluated as true by counting. If I have five beans /here/ and five beans /here/ then I can verify by counting that I have some beans… 

          4. No, it really is consensual opinion. Over time Anglophones have agreed on certain meanings for certain words in certain contexts. If it were an objective truth, it would be invariant across cultures. (As a not unrelated aside: How, in German, can you differentiate between security [protection] and safety? What is the French word for shallow [water]?)

          5. It’s certainly verifiable by counting, for sufficiently many values of A, B and C that would establish it as a provisional truth.

          6. Jerry may accept it, but others don’t. If other’s didn’t disagree, the is/ought distinction wouldn’t be a “thing”.

          7. You’re suggesting that a synobill swan could be a black swan? Fundamentally, our scientific understanding of why things are different colours tells us that your statement is true; a substance cannot simultaneously absorb all light but red and all light but green.

          8. “The Principle of Sufficient Reason is a powerful and controversial philosophical principle stipulating that everything must have a reason or cause.” [Stamford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] If it weren’t an opinion, it couldn’t be controversial! ;-)

          /@

  27. Roo
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    It seems that many cries of scientism do center around “Things that scientists do that annoy me,” the way a person might start a field of “in-lawism”. Adorable, round-cheeked seven-year-old’s leukemia cured with disabled and modified HIV? Science. Petty people that the author personally thinks are jerkstores turning down good proposals over personal vendettas? Scientism. Of course pointing out problems in any field is important, but it’s just that – pointing out problems in the system, not anything “ism”.

    That said, I’m just not following on the controversy surrounding “other ways of knowing”. As I see it, if you are having a subjective experience, you are experiencing another way of knowing. Not sight, sound, taste, touch, hearing, but another, separate way of experiencing the world. Feeling it, if you will. A few (radical behaviorists, say) might completely deny the existence of such a state, but for everyone else, I think it’s as simple as declaring that you’re not a philosopher’s zombie and that you are, in fact, having a subjective internal experience. And once that’s established, well yes, of course, such an experience is literally the basis of everything we do. That may sound like a bold claim, but I think exceptions are few and far between if they exist at all. Why should we want little girls to be cured of leukemia? Why should we should we want anything? And for that matter, the minute you ‘want’ anything (even an ethical world, or for people to follow moral codes) you’ve already invoked the word ‘want’, which sends you right back to your subjective state.

    Words like morality would have no meaning in a world full of androids without internal states. Neither would science, for that matter – caring about science and its outcomes is, after all, yet another subjective experience based on the anticipation of further subjective experiences (the pleasures of gaining knowledge, alleviating suffering, increasing productivity, producing cool gadgets, etc.) All of this is utterly meaningless without subjective beings to care about any of it. So yes, if you want to get reductionist about it, I think pretty much anything we do can be traced back to our subjective, felt experience, which is, like seeing, its own way of knowing (or perhaps sensing would be a more appropriate word) and experiencing the world.

  28. Alex T
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Everyone seems to be in agreement that science’s use of induction doesn’t guarantee that we’ll arrive that The Truth, and if our theories are True, there’s no way to know that. However there’s some disagreement over how to interpret this. Could there be other ways of knowing that aren’t scientific?

    Let’s assume that there is a competing methodology which, if followed, will lead to Truth (or even a close approximation, as with science). According to our assumption, we know this isn’t scientific so it would have to lack some key features which Jerry listed as “empirical observation, reason, and (usually) replicated observation and prediction that investigates what exists in the universe”.

    Now things get clearer, for me at least. While these aren’t sufficient to arrive at Truth (or even truth), they’re clearly necessary as dropping any of these quickly leads us astray. I don’t see how we can drop any of these traits and still have a methodology which can lead to knowledge.

    It’s not formalized, but I think this should show that any path to knowledge MUST therefore by scientific.

  29. Mark Fuller Dillon
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    In reply to questions after his essay, Eric MacDonald wrote:

    “I should perhaps add here that the purpose of conceptual clarification is not necessarily progress. Keeping our concepts sharp and clear is a continuing necessity, and some of the conceptual work done by Kant and Plato, Aristotle and even Aquinas, is still important and useful. It is a continuing conversation, and cultures which do not possess a philosophical tradition are often hamstrung by conceptual unclarity. Islamic societies are a case in point. Conceptual clarification is inevitably individualistic and heretical, and societies without a strong philosophical tradition will be threatened by it. That, I suggest, is why the medieval period ended, at the beginning of modernity, with the witchcraze. What Charles Freeman calls the closing of the Western mind had the effect, in the end, of blunting sensitivity to concepts of truth, evidence and inquiry. Philosophy carried out without any grounding in human reality, whether that relates to the varied processes of inquiry, or the making moral judgements, is clearly just a matter of words spinning their wheels. Kant’s saying that ‘Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions [perceptions] without concepts are blind’ is apt here.”

    If I am misunderstanding him, then I apologize; but it seems to me that the issues raised here go right to the heart of Mr. MacDonald’s essay.

    Perhaps the question is not so much, “Is science the only valid and reliable way of knowing?” as, “If we assume that science is the only valid and reliable way of knowing, do we risk the danger of rejecting and losing this continuing conversation, this ongoing search for conceptual clarification?”

    And so perhaps the true value of philosophy is not as a “quest for objective truth, or as a method to know,” but as a method of thinking about and clarifying what we know.

    As Mr. MacDonald says, when scientists reject philosophy,

    “The underlying suggestion seems to be that philosophy has nothing to contribute to science (or to anything else, for that matter), and therefore is without point or purpose. But what Dawkins and many others seem not to realise is that much philosophy has no intention of making a contribution to science, and, moreover, much of the conceptual work that Dawkins and other scientists do, or attempt to do, is really philosophy. We all philosophise from time to time, and like the character in one of Moliere’s plays, who was surprised to find out that he spoke in prose, it might surprise Dawkins and others that they are, all unbeknownst, doing philosophy, and sometimes doing it poorly.”

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think anyone has denied that science can take inspiration anywhere: dreams, philosophies, hallucinations, religions, …

      I think there is a debate how useful philosophy is as source for hypotheses. Right now it is a matter of opinion (no statistics what I know of), in which case our estimable host’s note works: (moral) opinion is relative.

  30. Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I believe within our very DNA or design if you will, we have a direction, a course that is above and beyond our conscience understanding due to it’s complexities, that by nature we are on at this very moment. Many factors exist that do by nature disrupt this direction. Based on this natural course we have decided upon what is good and what is bad believing one will keep us on the path the other will keep us from the path. All morals values etc. thus follow this direction. They have no value outside of the intended direction. Therefore moral objectivity does exist but it does not exit at the same time.

    In order for us to define we must have contrast…relativity. That is how we perceive things. Anything outside of our perception is irelavant. So yes the author is correct but he must be incorrect as well. We are evolving so we do not find truth we get closer at defining it in better terms.

    Religion has a purpose that is evolving as
    well. Truth in religion has never been the agent of change, although it has….correct? It is the experience and the definition that
    we give it that claims the power.

    Science defines based on a direction. It must. We were almost close to changing some of that direction with the CERN experiment (speed of light). How will the God Particle possibly make a bend in that direction.

    Philosophy plays a huge role in everything. What we believe, becomes what we do.

  31. corio37
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, perhaps having learnt some theology from Eric, you could volunteer to teach him some science? He seems to have a bizarre — almost a theistic — view of what science is all about.

  32. John K.
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    I fear Dr. Conye is mischaracterizing Eric quite a bit here.

    He is in no way inferring that he has a method that “goes beyond” or is even “on par” with science in terms of acquiring knowledge. In comment #34 in his thread he explicitly says such an assertion would be “too foolish for words”. I think Dr. Conye is projecting apologists attacking his discipline, which Eric is in no way doing.

    All Eric is really saying is that shutting the door at the label of knowledge right when the scientific method cannot be applied is too narrow a definition of knowledge. We can “know” mathematics or language for example, which are really exercises in large scale conformity and not a matter of absolute truth at all. There are many fields of knowledge that admittedly are based entirely on axioms, and refusing to call such endeavors knowledge on the basis that there is no empirical method to determine them is too miserly.

    Lastly, Dr. Conye’s challenge misses the point entirely. A truth need not be objective to still be considered a piece of knowledge. Even scientific truths are not completely objective, they are subject to revision in the correct circumstances. Science gets us closer than any other method to objective truths, but strictly speaking science has no completely objective truths to offer either.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      It is in the nature of knowledge that it must shut some doors in order to hold others open. Here, we must define quality of observation (mutually agreeable limits on uncertainty) in order to robustly do observation in the first place.

      Doing so means holding the door open for science to do more observation and theory. At the same time it closes the door on religion and philosophy, that has failed to make contributions to knowledge.

      As for axiomatics, especially math, see my longish comment above. TL,DR: modern proof theory shows that all proofs are zero-knowledge empirical games, and testing (“validation”) of proof can be statistically performed as everywhere else. Mathematics as “not empirics” was always slippery ground, and now math itself says it is based on an empirical mathematical object of observational games and statistical tests.

      As for objective facts, we have them. It takes a while to whittle away contenders, but eventually robust knowledge is arrived at. I usually link to Carroll’s article on how the laws for everyday physics are completely known, but now I can mention the Higgs field as the last part of the Standard Model of particles. Jerry always notes on this point how we know that water is one oxygen and two hydrogen, this won’t change either.

  33. Kevin
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    A few posts ago you wrote the following:
    “If that doesn’t pit scientists against religionists, I don’t know what does. So did, for example, the Galileo affair.”

    By what scientific means do you know about “the Galileo affair”?

    • Alex T
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      Revelation, of course. The same way that everyone knows about history.

      Why, how do you know about Galileo?

  34. eric
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    In other words, Eric is committing here the very sin he decried (as I recall) in Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape: he is saying that there are scientifically establishable truths about ethics. And if that’s true, then let Eric tell us what those truths are…

    Better yet, let him tell us the algorithm or methodology one uses to determine the morality of an action. If evil is objective, tell us how to build an Evilometer.

  35. Posted December 12, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Now I agree, of course, that throwing acid in the face of Afghan schoolgirls for trying to learn is wrong. But it is not an “objective” moral wrong-that is, you cannot deduce it from mere observation, not without adding some reasons why you think it’s wrong.

    I suggest if you observe acid being thrown in the faces of Afghan schoolgirls, witnessing their screams, seeing their disfigurement, and then you “objectively” conclude morality is, at bottom, mere opinion — opinion that has a 50/50 chance of going one way or the other — then you are pretending to stand outside of, and even rejecting, your humanity.

    I think it is an objective fact that humans relate to the suffering of others. This isn’t to say that they cannot be convinced to ignore that suffering by ideological indoctrination — that is, by being corrupted by strong opinion. But we do have a human nature. And there is no reason that nature cannot be studied scientifically, even if it has to wait until we better understand the brain.

    • Mark Fuller Dillon
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      This is the problem: it does indeed seem true that human beings feel the suffering of others; it also seems true that human beings can rejoice in the suffering of others, and not only because of indoctrination.

      For that reason, it might be hard to base morality on any objective assessment of human nature, because human nature is plastic: it can leap many ways, often at once.

      We don’t yet understand human brains well enough to address this paradox scientifically (although someday, we might). For now, perhaps the best we can do is offer subjective arguments for what we consider good and right, and hope these values take hold. If that’s merely our opinion, well… I’m not sure what else we can present, at least for now.

      • Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

        Under what circumstances do you suppose human beings rejoice in the suffering of others? Let’s say a person walks through a mall randomly shooting people. Do you suppose there is a 50/50 chance I would rejoice when person X is wasted and a 50/50 chance I would cringe when person Y is wasted? Or is there a 50/50 chance two observers would have opposite reactions when person X is wasted? I see no evidence of that kind of moral indifference in human observers.

        It’s true people clap when the bad guy is wasted, but that implies a disposition to see good triumph. They don’t usually clap when the good guy is wasted. If humans were indeed infinitely malleable then I believe Hollywood could 1) never make a hit movie because nobody would care who triumphed, or 2) make any movie with equal success because the audience was truly random in its moral tastes.

        • Mark Fuller Dillon
          Posted December 12, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

          >>Under what circumstances do you suppose human beings rejoice in the suffering of others?

          Warfare comes to mind — kill or be killed.

          Murder.

          Rape.

          Torture.

          Vengeance.

          Sadism of all stripes. And so on.

          I would never deny that for many people, these actions only become possible with extreme indoctrination. But others, for any variety of reasons, seem to commit these acts on their own volition.

          >>Do you suppose there is a 50/50 chance I would rejoice when person X is wasted and a 50/50 chance I would cringe when person Y is wasted?

          No, probably not, if you’re empathetic. For someone like you (and for someone like me), cringing is what we do. It’s the way we are.

          But I think you’ll find sufficient evidence in history, sociology and criminology that not everyone feels the same way. The most terrible thing about cruelty is that it can be so easily justified for those who are disposed (or predisposed?) to be cruel.

          For that reason, I think, appeals to human nature are not enough to validate moral positions, because human nature is varied.

          • Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

            Fortunately murder, rape, torture and sadism aren’t norms. We should ask why not? For example, how often do you get the urge to torture someone? Personally, I’ve never had that urge. Under what circumstances might I develop the urge? I don’t know. Would they be biological or social causes? I don’t know. What’s keeping me as I am? I don’t know that either. If I don’t know? How can I rule out anything?

            Under duress people do things they wouldn’t normally do. Under duress strong bones break.

            I agree human nature is varied. On balance that’s a good thing. But we shouldn’t define morality or any human other attribute by the exceptions. Some people are born without skin pigmentation. It’s still objectively true that humans by nature have skin pigmentation.

            • Mark Fuller Dillon
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

              But here’s an interesting (and troubling) question: is violent behaviour truly exceptional?

              I really don’t know. But given human history, it seems clear that violence has been frequent enough to leave a major impact.

              So, are we a violent species? Or empathetic? We seem to be both. And for that reason, it becomes hard to present a moral position as “objective.”

              We could argue that long-term stability depends upon good will and peace, but that would be subjective morality. (I happen to agree with it, but I realize that it’s not accepted all the time and everywhere.)

              • Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

                “We could argue that long-term stability depends upon good will and peace, but that would be subjective morality.”

                Would it though? If morality was part of nature’s design to help our species thrive by promoting good will and peace then it was objectively designed for that function. Surely we can’t call any advantage gained through evolution “subjective.” If so, we’d have to call our hands subjective.

                And this brings up a interesting issue. Our hands don’t have a single use. We use them as circumstances require in an infinite number of ways. Yet who would say there’s nothing objectively true about them? That they have no limitations? That we can do with them as we please?

            • Gary W
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

              Fortunately murder, rape, torture and sadism aren’t norms. We should ask why not?

              Probably because a society in which murder, rape and sadism were norms would not be stable. Science may be able to identify moral beliefs that are destructive to social stability, but that wouldn’t tell us whether those beliefs are true or false.

    • Gary W
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

      I suggest if you observe acid being thrown in the faces of Afghan schoolgirls, witnessing their screams, seeing their disfigurement, and then you “objectively” conclude morality is, at bottom, mere opinion — opinion that has a 50/50 chance of going one way or the other — then you are pretending to stand outside of, and even rejecting, your humanity.

      I don’t conclude that morality is subjective (ultimately a matter of preference) from that. I conclude it from the lack of evidence that moral beliefs are objectively true. You can cite as many shocking incidents as you like, but they’re not evidence for objective moral truth.

      I think it is an objective fact that humans relate to the suffering of others.

      So do I (although I guess I’d add “in general.”) But that’s a different question.

      • Posted December 13, 2012 at 12:05 am | Permalink

        “You can cite as many shocking incidents as you like, but they’re not evidence for objective moral truth.”

        Maybe not, but I do think they’re evidence of something inherent in our being. And up until now there’s been no good way of digging into our biology to see what’s going on. One day soon I think we’ll be able to do that and then the search can really begin.

  36. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    those who claim otherwise are guilty of scientism.

    Well, yes. But physicalism (scientism) is an observation – that physics is all there is, and that science works.

    Certainly, science works, as Hawking said. …

    First of all, it does not tell us how we know that science provides the ”truth” about “reality.” [Note the admission that science "works".] …

    “No scientific investigation can tell us whether science is epistemologically special, and if so, how, or whether a theory’s yielding true predictions is an indication of its truth, and if so, why, and so on …”

    But it does tell us how we know that, by observation: science is observed to work, similar to how gravity is observed to work. It is also the basis how we tell it is special: nothing else is observed to work.

    Facts (not “truth”) are certified by observational techniques, eg statistics. They are observed to work too, you know.

    And if this is an implicit way to ask for how we know that not only is observational facts correlated to reality, but what reality is, it is both inconsequential to the fact that science works and a basis for all sorts of mechanics anyway (action-reaction, observation-observables, see Deutsch’s “The Fabric of Reality”).

    • Steve Stark
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

      The problem with claims such as “physics is all there is” and talk of “the fabric of reality” is that they are metaphysical claims without the slightest evidence to support them and without any connection to or current relevance for the world we actually inhabit. It’s also very far from clear what such claims mean in any definite sense, and whenever versions are fleshed out at all they turn out to be false.

  37. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    And, morality as opinion? Certainly.

    • Posted December 13, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      Do you know that, or is that just your opinion? If you know that, what objective, observable truths is that knowledge based on?

  38. David
    Posted December 14, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Answering Dostoevsky’s question may be the scientific way to determine “objective” morality as well as to weigh forms of well being against each other. It might take a while to find a way to present the question to an innocent child so that she could understand it, but let’s say it can be done: “Child, see these million people, they are going to die unless you die? What do you prefer? How many children would it take for such an answer to be statistically significant is the easy part. Harder would be answering what percent of affirmative answers are necessary for action to be taken; but this can also be answered by the group by asking general and related questions to clarify the groups objective conclusions about the percentage of affirmative answers necessary for any general class of decision making that supports the group’s well being. Whatever the answers then that is the scientific means to determine “objective” morality and to make a case for this particular group’s objective well being. Consequently, if children agree to be sacrificed and the group decides that killing one child should save a million people and that is what this group decides in an ongoing basis as elevating its well being, how is this not objective?

    Ongoing objective morality might be almost like the objective assessment of the elementary particles comprising an atom. As the examining instruments and the examiners got more sophisticated, the atom’s elementary components objectively changed both quantitatively and qualitatively. But no one complained that the previous inferior objective examination was subjective, although I suspect in retrospect they could have just as scientists 100 years from now might do the same for the current objective assessment of an atom’s components. But in both cases, the historical and the soon to be historical, objective examinations “worked” for each time’s purposes. And I think “what works” is the ultimate test of objectivity in particle physics, biology and morality, even though changes in “what works” might take place more slowly in the physical realm than in the social.

  39. jiten
    Posted December 14, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Let David Deutsch have the last word on what science is : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=folTvNDL08A

    Notice that he explains why empiricism is wrong, completely wrong.

  40. Dermot C
    Posted December 14, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Just spotted this and I know I’m very late to the thread but maybe this is worth a punt. What about this on ways of knowing?

    Surely when we read or view great artists we confirm and ‘know’ that other humans know, feel, are conscious as we are. We confirm that, because they can illustrate an idea, an emotion, they, as well as we ourselves, are human.

    Two examples: I saw a Goya painting in the Prado – can’t remember the title – very proto-Rothko – a big smear of black at the bottom of the painting, a big smear of brown above, and a dog peering over the intersection; absurd, cartoonish to describe in words, but deeply moving and visceral, despite the two centuries which separate Goya’s old age and my viewing of his work. And yes, I knew something about him and how he felt, and about how I as a human related to him.

    Secondly, we can know a lot about how humans felt in the past by sheer historical resourcefulness; great historians can illuminate events from the past which, initially appear incomprehensible, by sheer force of imagination, through thorough research and clarity of exposition. I’m thinking of E.P. Thompson and his brilliant ‘The Making of the English Working Class’; he explains, in novelistic precision, how early 19th century poor people must have felt; their thoughts are not recorded, but through a combination of research into the sources and a complete immersion and expertise in the contemporaneous documents, Thompson recreates their thoughts, motivations and fears. So much so that the reader is 99% convinced that s/he knows these yeomen, lost to history.

    Isn’t this a way of knowing? Based on historical research, imagination, experience, wisdom, absorption in a different culture, time and place?

    Art, and I would count E.P. Thompson as an artist, confirms the feeling we have that other humans feel as we ourselves do. Is this not a way of knowing, just as much as the confirmation of the results of an experiment endorse our fellow humans’ understanding of the material world?

  41. ralbin
    Posted December 16, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    A belated comment. I suspect Uncle Eric is misinterpreting Susan Haack. I think this statement comes from her interesting book on epistemic justification. Haack, a self-proclaimed pragmatist a la CS Peirce, is quite happy with according the sciences, particularly the natural sciences, quite a bit of authority. My recollection is that she is objeecting to one of WVO Quine’s statements in which he subordinates philosophical inquiry entirely to science – epistemology as a branch of psychology, for example. Haack, like most pragmatists, sees continuity between philosophy, science, and disciplines such as formal logic. This is rather different than the point implied.


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] put up on his website (Erinnern Sie sich! Es ist nicht einen Blog!) a new post entitled “Uncle Eric on Scientism,” which, in its quite evident challenge, reminds me of the lists, where one knight throws [...]

  2. [...] Coyne, like me, an atheist, and a latter day Darwin’s bulldog.    He wrote as much in a recent post on his blog.  For  [...]

  3. [...] in an earlier post, unlike Harris, Coyne claims that he does not agree that there are “scientifically establishable truths about ethics,” and asserts that moral judgments are subjective matters of opinion.  In practice, however, [...]

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