Progress in Science — I

Karl Popper[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]

“The wrong view of science betrays itself in the craving to be right; for it is not his possession of knowledge, of irrefutable truth, that makes the man of science, but his persistent and recklessly critical quest for truth.”
(Karl Popper)

If there is one area of human endeavor where there seems to be no doubt that the concept of progress applies, that surely must be science. Indeed, more often than not, as we have seen, it is prominent scientists who hurl accusations of uselessness to philosophy precisely based on what I think is a profoundly misguided comparison between the two disciplines, where the (alleged) lack of progress in philosophy is contrasted with the (unquestioned) steady progress of science.

As we shall see in this chapter, however, it is not immediately clear exactly in what sense science makes progress, or how precisely we are to measure such progress. Not surprisingly, it is philosophers of science — together with historians and sociologists of the discipline — who have investigated some of the basic assumptions about the practice of science that (most) scientists themselves simply take for granted. And such probing has been going on since at the least the beginning of the last century, with interesting results.

Just to make things as clear as possible from the outset, I do not deny that science makes progress, in something like the way in which scientists themselves (not to mention the public at large) think it does. My goal here is to show that even so, it is surprisingly difficult to cash out an   unambiguously clear picture of what this means, and to explore a number of alternative philosophical accounts of the nature of scientific knowledge. While this is not a book on the philosophy of science, and hence I will have to limit myself to only sketches of a number of complex and nuanced positions while pretty much ignoring others for the sake of brevity, it is important to go through this exercise for two reasons: first, because it should bring about some humility on the part of scientistically inclined people (or so one can hope); second, because it will put into better perspective the reasons why arguing that philosophy in turn makes progress is  both not straightforward and yet perfectly plausible.

The obvious starting point: the Correspondence Theory of Truth

Every scientist I have talked to about these matters (though, of course, systematic sociological research on this would be welcome!), has implicitly endorsed what philosophers refer to as the Correspondence Theory of Truth (CToT: David 2009). This also likely captures the meaning of truth that lay people endorse, and may be at the roots of the almost universal belief that science makes progress, specifically in the sense of discovering true things about the world (or — in a somewhat more sophisticated fashion — of producing a series of theories about the nature of the world that come closer and closer to the truth). Interestingly, many philosophers up until recently have also endorsed the CToT, and have done so without even bothering to produce arguments in its favor, since it has often been taken to be self-evident. For example, Descartes (1639 / 1991, AT II 597) famously put it this way: “I have never had any doubts about truth, because it seems a notion so transcendentally clear that nobody can be ignorant of it … the word ‘truth,’ in the strict sense, denotes the conformity of thought with its object.”

Still, what, exactly, is the CToT? Here is how Aristotle put it (350 BCE, 1011b25): “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” Not exactly the most elegant rendition of it, but a concept that we find pretty much unchanged in Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, Kant and several other medieval and early modern writers. Its contemporary rendition dates to the early days of analytic philosophy, and particularly to the work of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell. Truth, according to the CToT, is correspondence to facts: to say that statement / theory X is true just means that there is a factual state of affairs Y in the world that is as described by X. It seems pretty straightforward and hard to dispute, and yet much 20th century philosophy of science and epistemology has done just that: dispute the CToT with the aim of carefully unpacking the notions on which it is based, and — if warranted — to replace it with a better theory of truth.

The first problem lies in the very use of the word “truth.” It seems obvious what we mean if we say that, for instance, it is true that the planet Saturn has rings in orbit around its center of gravity. But it should be equally obvious what we mean when we say things like the Pythagorean theorem is true (within the framework of Euclidean geometry). And yet the two senses of the word “truth” here are quite distinct: the first refers to the sort of truth that can be ascertained (insofar as it can) via observation or experiment; the second one refers to truth that can be arrived at by deductive mathematical proof. We can also say that the law of the excluded middle — which says that either a proposition or its negation are true, but not both — is (logically) true within the framework of classical logic. This is related to, and yet somehow distinct, from the sense in which the Pythagorean theorem is true, and of course it is even further distinct from the business about Saturn and its rings. There are yet other situations in which we can reasonably and more or less uncontroversially say that something is true. For instance, according to every ethical system that I am aware of it is true that murdering someone is wrong. More esoterically, philosophers interested in possible world semantics and other types of modal logic (Garson 2009) may also wish to say that some statement or another is “true” of all nearby possible worlds, and so on.

The bottom line is that the concept of truth is in fact heterogeneous, so that we need to be careful about which sense we employ in any specific instance. Once appreciated, this is not an obstacle unless a scientistically inclined person wants to say, for instance, that moral truths are the same kind of truths as scientific ones. As you may recall, we have in fact encountered a number of such cavalier statements already, which reinforces the point that the apparently obvious differences among the above mentioned meanings of truth do, in fact, need to be spelled out and constantly kept in mind. So, I will limit application of the CToT — within the specific context that interests us here — to empirical-scientific truths about the way the world is and works. It is of course the case that mathematicians, and even some ethicists, deploy a version of it within their respective domains of interest, but I hope it is uncontroversial that in those cases we are talking about a different type of “correspondence” (i.e., not one that can even in principle be verified by observation or experiment) — and this quite apart from my personal skepticism of mathematical Platonism (see Introduction) or of moral realism (which I will leave for another time). (For a classic, sophisticated discussion of mathematical truth taking account of the Platonist perspective see: Benacerraf, 1973.)

Even if we agree that the CToT in science makes intuitive sense if we limit ourselves to a restricted meaning of the word “fact,” we still need to examine a number of objections and alternative proposals to the theory, as they will help appreciate why to talk about progress in science is not quite as straightforward as one might think. There are several issues that have been raised about the soundness of the CToT (see David 2009 for a survey and further references), one of which is that it simply does not amount to a “theory” of any sort; in fact, it has been characterized as a trivial statement, a vacuous platitude, and so forth. This is somewhat harsh, and even if the CToT really is not anything that one might reasonably label with the lofty term of “theory” it doesn’t mean that it is either trivial or vacuous. One way to think of it is that the CToT is closer to a working definition of what truth is, particularly in science (some philosophers, like David, refer to these situations as “mini-theories”). And definitions are useful, if not necessarily explanatory, as they anchor our discussions and provide the starting point for further exploration. [1]

Perhaps a more serious objection to the CToT is that it relies on the much debated concept of “correspondence,” which itself needs to be unpacked (the classical reference here is Field (1972), but see also Horwich 1990). To simplify quite a bit, one of the possible answers is that defenders of the CToT can invoke the more precise (at least in mathematics) idea of isomorphism as the type of correspondence they have in mind. The problem is that — unlike in math — it is not at all straightforward to cash out what it means to say that there is an isomorphism between a scientific theory (which is formulated in the abstract language of science) and a physical state of affairs in the world. This is a good point, but as David (2009) retorts, this sort of problems holds for any type of semantic relation, not just for isomorphisms in the context of the CToT.

Another way to take the measure of the CToT is to look at some of its principal rivals, as they have been put forth during the past several decades. One such rival is a coherentist approach to truth (Young 2013), which replaces the idea of correspondence (with facts) with the idea of coherence (among propositions). This move works better, I suspect, for logic and mathematics (where internal coherence is a primary standard), but less so for scientific theories. There are simply too many possible theories about the world that are coherent and yet do not actually describe the world as it is (or as we understand it to be) — a problem known in philosophy of science as the underdetermination of theory by the data, and one that from time to time actually plagues bona fide scientific theories, as it is currently the case with string theory in physics (Smolin 2007).

A second set of alternatives to the CToT is constituted by a number of pragmatic theories of truth, put forth by philosophers like Peirce and James (see Hookway’s (2008) refinement of Peirce’s original account). Famously, these two authors differed somewhat, with James interested in a pluralist account of truth and Peirce more inclined toward a concept that works better for a realist view of science. For Peirce scientific (or, more generally, empirical) investigation converges on the truth because our imperfect sensations are constrained by the real world out there, which leads to a sufficiently robust sense of “reality” while at the same time allowing us to maintain some degree of skepticism about specific empirical findings and theoretical constructs. Here is how Peirce characterizes the process (Peirce, 1992 & 1999, vol. 1, 138):

So with all scientific research. Different minds may set out with the most antagonistic views, but the progress of investigation carries them by a force outside of themselves to one and the same conclusion. This activity of thought by which we are carried, not where we wish, but to a foreordained goal, is like the operation of destiny. No modification of the point of view taken, no selection of other facts for study, no natural bent of mind even, can enable a man to escape the predestinate opinion.

For Peirce, therefore, truth is an “opinion” that is destined to be agreed upon (eventually) by all inquirers, and the reason for this agreement is that the object of such opinion is reality. This is actually something that I think scientists and realist-inclined philosophers could live with. James’ views, by contrast, are a bit more controversial and prima facie less science friendly, for instance when he claims that truth is whatever proves to be good to believe (James 1907/1975, 42), or when he defines truth as whatever is instrumental to our goals (James 1907/1975, 34). James did qualify those statements to the effect that they are meant in the long run and on the whole (James 1907/1975, 106), thus invoking a concept of convergence toward truth that is not too dissimilar from Peirce’s. Still, by this route James arrived at his famous (and famously questionable) defense of theological beliefs: belief in God becomes “true” because “[it] yield religious comfort to a most respectable class of minds” (James 1907/1975, 40). While Hookway (2008) suggests that Bertrand Russell was a bit unfair to James when he said that the latter’s theory of truth committed him to the “truth” that Santa Claus exists, Bertie may have had a point.

There are a number of other alternatives to the CToT that need to be at the least briefly mentioned. For instance, the identity theory says that true propositions do not correspond to facts, they are facts. It is not crystal clear in what ontological sense this is the case. Then we have deflationist approaches to truth: according to the CToT, “Snow is white” is true iff it corresponds to the fact that snow is white; for a deflationist, however, “Snow is white” is true iff snow is (in fact) white. The move basically consists in dropping the “corresponds to” part of the CToT. David (2009), however, points out that many CToT statements are not so easily “deflated”; moreover, this particular debate seems to hinge on issues of semantics rather than on any “theory” of what it is for something to be true.

A position that gathers more of my sympathies is that of alethic pluralism, according to which truth is multiply realizable. As David (2009) puts is: “truth is constituted by different properties for true propositions from different domains of discourse: by correspondence to fact for true propositions from the domain of scientific or everyday discourse about physical things; by some epistemic property, such as coherence or superassertibility, for true propositions from the domain of ethical and aesthetic discourse, and maybe by still other properties for other domains of discourse.” This in a sense closes the circle, as alethic pluralism conjoins our discussion of theories of truth with my initial observation that “facts” come in a variety of flavors (empirical, mathematical, logical, ethical, etc.), with distinct flavors requiring distinct conceptions of what counts as true.

The goal of this brief overview of theories of truth was to establish two points: first, contra popular opinion (especially among scientists), it is not exactly straightforward to claim that science makes progress toward truth about the natural world, in part because the concept of “truth” itself is fraught with surprising difficulties; second, and relatedly, there are different conceptions of truth, some of which represent the best we can do to justify our intuitive sense that science does indeed make progress in the teleonomic sense of approaching truth, and others that may constitute a better basis to judge progress (understood in a different fashion, along the lines of our discussion in the Introduction) in other fields — such as mathematics, logic, and of course, philosophy.

Notes

[1] It should be obvious that truth as understood here is a property of propositions and statements, but not of other things. “The truth,” then, is not a concrete entity to be found, nor is it an abstract object apart from the class of true propositions.

References

Aristotle (350 BCE) Metaphysics (translated by W.D. Ross) (accessed on 31 May 2013).

Benacerraf, P. (1973) Mathematical truth. The Journal of Philosophy 70:661-679.

David, M. (2009) The Correspondence Theory of Truth. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 8 May 2013).

Descartes, R. (1639 / 1991) Letter to Mersenne: 16 October 1639. In: The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. 3. Cambridge University Press.

Field, H. (1972) Tarski’s theory of truth. The Journal of Philosophy 69:347-375.

Garson, J. (2009) Modal Logic. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 31 May 2013).

Hookway, C. (2008) Pragmatism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 4 June 2013).

Horwich, P. (1990) Truth. Blackwell.

James, W. (1907 / 1975) Pragmatism: A New Name for some Old Ways of Thinking. Harvard University Press.

Peirce, C.S. 1992 and 1999. The Essential Peirce. Indiana University Press.

Smolin, L. (2007) The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. Mariner Books.

Young, J.O. (2013) The coherence theory of truth. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 4 June 2013).

100 thoughts on “Progress in Science — I

  1. Coel

    Hi garthdaisy,

    But I would quarrel with this being “bedrock” because we know the causal source of human likes and dislikes, namely evolved human nature.

    True, but then bedrock is also the product of geological and physical processes. 😉

    … but morality is at least as real as particles is it not?

    Yes. Morality is about human feelings and human feelings are real, being real patterns of physical stuff in our brains. Thus morality is real.

    … is this then not a case for moral realism?

    No, because moral realism is defined as (added emphasis):

    “Moral Realism … is the meta-ethical view … that there exist such things as moral facts and moral values, and that these are objective and independent of our perception of them or our beliefs, feelings or other attitudes towards them.

    Thus any view that roots morals in human feelings and desires is anti-realist. [Whereas the moral realist has to establish an ethical system without any reference to our feelings or preferences on the matter — no one has a clue how to do that (with the possible exception of Divine Command Theory).]

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  2. Imad Zaheer

    I also apologize if my post was off-topic focusing too much on morality. I’ll try to orient my responses based on the concept of truth

    CHRISTIAN

    All forms of inquiry require an interested agent that is willing to engage in it so I agree with your examples. However, I’m not sure what you mean that they are not categorical oughts? Are you using this in a Kantian sense? And what is the difference between an ought and a categorical ought?

    I think this issue is made too complicated by the fact that people try to look for oughts out there, as if there is some logical necessity that oughts have to be built into the fabric of the space time. Instead, they are simply using reasoning and evidence to answer questions regarding what we ought to do. Nothing magical about it unless people use God as their rational, in which case we can evaluate that claim like any other.

    To tie this back to the main topic, in this case moral truths, are still part of the general epistemological picture of the one concept of truth but the truth of moral propositions look different than that of physics and different set of conceptual/intellectual tools are used in different combinations.

    But others with a similar set of substantive views may instead emphasize what we still can do, why we can or even should be hopeful about our ability to rationally analyze, discuss, and improve our situation. To the extent that this is the case, I’d say I’m glad we have both “good cop” and “bad cop” approaches.

    What else would one do besides rational analysis to improve the situation? That is essentially normative moral inquiry. I think people have to much of a hang up about how certain things need to be true in a universal sense of God. People still argue that epistemological claims cannot be justified unless God exists. Similarly, I think people are weirdly hung up about morality being either Divine or the Universe commanding us. That to me is the truly incoherent account and Plato showed that with his euthyphro.

    COEL

    Hi Imad,

    What I’m saying is that I don’t find moral realism tenable. Indeed, I’ve never encountered a moral-realist conception that seemed even coherent or meaningful. There is a notable tradition in philosophy that takes the “emotivist” line that I do. Since emotivism explains everything that needs explaining, I regard the burden of proof as being on the moral realists, and despite millennia of trying they’ve not got anywhere.

    Emotivism is a legitimate view in the sense that there are many philosophers that hold it but many also hold a realist view as well and have since the beginning of philosophy. People simply holding a view however is not support for the view itself so I don’t see why the fact that you’re an emotivist and you don’t find moral realism tenable puts the burden on moral realist. At best it leaves the situation undecided.

    I’m no philosopher and certainly not a moral philosopher but my understanding is that moral realism is something that people like Derek Parfit have made a strong case for. It’s at the very least a discussion of the actual points of moral inquiry rather than dismissing it because we can’t find the “moral” particle in the LHC.

    Also, I’m still curious about how much of the moral literature you have read? And what authors? Which one of those were the untenable types of moral realisms? What emotivists do you find compelling?

    The idea that there are only instrumental oughts (= those deriving from a human aim or desire; “if you want X then you ought to do Y”), is a noted, though minority, stance in philosophy.

    If you want moral realism and objectivity about “oughts” (such that they don’t come down to a human preference, but instead to some external standard), then you’ve got your work cut out to establish such a standard. You also need to explain what you even mean by the phrase “what we ought to do”.

    You can desire to be moral or not but that is a matter of moral motivation, not the legitimately of morality itself. If you want to be moral, do XYZ. Here is another example, if you want to be healthy, do ABC. Doesn’t mean there is no objective sense of health etiher.

    As I mentioned above, all human inquiry requires us to have motivation to engage in it. This is hardly an argument against moral realisms. (“realisms” because moral realism is a class of different views, not just one).

    I’m not sure what you mean by an external standard or how that even makes sense in moral inquiry. Are you talking about God or a Universe that cares for us? Or are we back to physics, chemistry or biology discovering moral truths “out there”? If that’s your conception of morality, than it’s hardly addressing moral inquiry as done by most ethicists (well non-religious ethicists anyways).

    Moral oughts are simply based on what we can reason towards in terms of answering moral question. This can be done in an objective way and is not the same expressing preferences. This is neither mysterious nor untenable.

    Bringing it back to the unity of truth and plurality of truth, as per a continuity thesis, this is line with having an overall truth and specific normative truths. Moreover, this is also aligned with the fact that we have general epistemological principals but also field specific methods. Physics uses telescopes and particle accelerates as aids to inquiry, morality uses conceptual strategies (i.e., veil of ignorance, reflective equilibrium) to aid in inquiry towards answering moral questions. This is roughly what Massimo’s book is about if I may venture a guess. Progress is philosophy occurs but progress is going to look different as it’s field specific, even if the underlying epistemology is unified.

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  3. synred

    The only thing I would correct Schopenhauer on here is that this also goes for women you sexist pig! 😉

    Der Mensch kann tun was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will

    In context ‘Der Mensch‘ means human being just as mankind meant humans. ‘Der’ is the male gender article, so there is some chauvinism built into German like English.

    But Schopenhauer could have hardly said it any other way. It unlikely he meant to exclude women from ‘willing’.

    Of course it’s pretty likely S was a sexist pig. Most Menchen were :_)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Imad Zaheer

    Massimo,

    Peter Singer recently switched to favoring moral realism based on Derek Parfit’s arguments in “On What Matters”.

    I only know this as I recently purchased his book “The expanding circle” which he updated with some notes at the end indicating that he finds Parfit’s arguments compelling that it has forced him to change his views.

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  5. brodix

    There was a time when civil laws were considered God given, as in the Ten Commandments and many places they still are, as with Sharia Law. So there is a natural desire, from our mortal, finite view, to see such patterns, that give order to our lives and the reality we inhabit, as foundational. The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis essentially does that, in a much more abstracted, impersonal way.

    It is just that as we grow, we have to keep looking deeper and try to understand the processes giving rise to these patterns, or the structures we build on them become unstable, because their foundations are poorly constructed.

    Which is the domain of philosophy.

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  6. Massimo Post author

    Imad,

    Thanks, now that you mention it, I had actually heard that about Singer. Still, since his general views about applied ethics haven’t changed, clearly the metaethics underdetermined them.

    Garth,

    I have little sympathy for evolutionary psychology, which is too often a matter of untestable ideas. Nonetheless, clearly human instincts did evolve. Equally clearly, and contra to what you so assuredly claim, human desires and emotions are actually pliable, and when we are talking feedback loops it simply makes no sense to claim that there is something at the bottom. It’s a loop, a spiral, it doesn’t matter where it started, the point is that things change.

    And, again, physics is entirely irrelevant here. It is simply the wrong level of description.

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  7. synred

    ‘scientistically’ is not a word according to Word. It also seems to me to have a kind of derogatory flavor to it which it seems unlikely you intend.

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  8. Daniel Kaufman

    Imad: If by “foundherentist” you mean the sort of hybrid of Foundationalism and Coherentism that we find in Quine, then I think it is probably the best you can do. For me, that’s not good enough, but then again, I don’t care whether we have a theory of justification or not … being, as I am, somewhat of a Wittgensteinian.

    The two sources I cited, here — Dancy and BonJour — are books, not articles.

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  9. synred

    “We can also say that the law of the excluded middle — which says that either a proposition or its negation are true, but not both — is (logically) true within the framework of classical logic.”

    I have never understood why this is a rule of logic. Isn’t it just the meaning of negation? Is it a logic which negation doesn’t exist? What would that mean?

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  10. Coel

    Hi Imad,

    I don’t see why the fact that you’re an emotivist and you don’t find moral realism tenable puts the burden on moral realist.

    The fact that people have feelings about moral issues is known, so the emotivist is not claiming anything not already known. The moral realist is claiming that there is something more to it than that, that’s why the burden of proof is on the moral realist.

    I’m still curious about how much of the moral literature you have read? And what authors?

    Some of them would be Hume, Mill, Bentham, Ayer, Foot, Rawls, Singer, Mackie, though I’ll readily confess that I’m much less read in such areas than many here. But, my issue isn’t with particular conceptions of moral realism, it’s more basic than that, being about what “X is morally wrong” is supposed to *mean*.

    One can say: “X is morally wrong and you ought not do it”, but what’s that supposed to mean? Under emotivism it amounts to the speaker declaring: “I would dislike you doing X and want you not to do it”. What do you think it means?

    Of course one can declare a moral framework, such as utilitarianism or virtue ethics, and declare — validly — that given that framework the claim “X is morally wrong” has meaning. But that won’t give you moral realism unless you establish the normativity of that framework entirely independently of the advocacy of any human. How do you do that? You need some starting points, some moral axioms, and those can only derive from the advocacy of a moral agent. Which gives you subjective, anti-realist morality.

    Or are we back to physics, chemistry or biology discovering moral truths “out there”?

    I have no idea! You’re the moral realist, so you’re the one who presumably knows what you mean by “moral”, such that moral realism is true. I, quite genuinely, don’t know what you mean by the word. The only sensible interpretation I can put on the word is the emotivist one, which is anti-realist.

    This is a problem I often have discussing this issue with moral realists: They are so steeped in moral realism that they don’t even realise that they don’t actually know what “moral” means, and so get baffled when I ask (to be fair, I was just as bad when I first asked *myself* that question 🙂 ).

    Hi Massimo,

    Still, since [Singer’s] general views about applied ethics haven’t changed, clearly the metaethics underdetermined them.

    Singer’s applied ethics always were steeped in moral realism. He was, though, sensible enough to realise that moral realism is problematic, such that he declared himself agnostic on the issue. That didn’t stop his applied ethics being moral realist. More recently he has indeed declared as openly moral realist.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. marc levesque

    Coel,

    # My argument for the non-existence of objective moral truths amounts to: there is no evidence for it, there is no coherent account of what objective morality is supposed to mean, and there is nothing that we need objective morality to explain. #

    I surely wasn’t arguing for moral realism and I don’t think anyone else here is either.

    And I’m surprised by the way you shifted topic, but that’s fine, I pretty much agree with what you said in the above quote.

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  12. synred

    I have little sympathy for evolutionary psychology, which is too often a matter of untestable ideas.

    The trouble with evolutionary psch is that while it’s premise (the emotions, intelligence evolved) is likely correct, it content consist of unverifiable ‘just so stroies’ w/o evidence and w/o a time machine thery’re unlikely to get any

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  13. Coel

    Hi marc,

    I surely wasn’t arguing for moral realism and I don’t think anyone else here is either.

    I think that Imad is indeed arguing for moral realism, and I may have got confused about who was arguing for what in replying to you.

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  14. marc levesque

    Coel,

    Thanks for saying,

    You got to it before me, I was about to say I’d just noticed that after we’d started arguing about likes and dislikes you brought up moral realism on the same topic with Imad”.

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  15. Imad Zaheer

    Coel,

    I am arguing for moral realism but I suspect that means something very different for you than it does for me. I would distinguish it from moral absolutism or universal morality.

    The fact that people have feelings about moral issues is known, so the emotivist is not claiming anything not already known. The moral realist is claiming that there is something more to it than that, that’s why the burden of proof is on the moral realist.

    And people have made ought claims and they are well known to. The only difference is that feelings are descriptive and ought statements are normative.

    Some of them would be Hume, Mill, Bentham, Ayer, Foot, Rawls, Singer, Mackie, though I’ll readily confess that I’m much less read in such areas than many here. But, my issue isn’t with particular conceptions of moral realism, it’s more basic than that, being about what “X is morally wrong” is supposed to *mean*.

    Fair enough, I was asking about the readings not because I think you disagree with any particular form of moral realism but rather that one has to actually read the literature to figure out what the arguments are for and against a said position. I’m glad you mentioned Rawls though as that is a view close to my own.

    One can say: “X is morally wrong and you ought not do it”, but what’s that supposed to mean? Under emotivism it amounts to the speaker declaring: “I would dislike you doing X and want you not to do it”. What do you think it means?

    Morality for me simply means rules that we use to govern how to we ought to behave towards one another, that are determined by rational inquiry into what those specific rules should be.

    Rawls is a great example as he gives us a great thought experiment like the Veil of Ignorance, that allows moral reasoning to be objective in the sense that it is not based on any particular persons likes or dislikes, preferences or prejudices but on reasoning that would be conducted within that veil regarding rules that would govern our behavior. That means you can’t simply say I like to murder people for sport and that would be the same as “It is moral for me to murder people for sport” but rather you have to justify why you think you should be allowed to do as such.

    These rules of morality are “real” in the sense that they are not based on what we believe but what we can rationally justify. This is also based on the meaning of real as Peirce puts it in terms of “independent of what you and I believe something to be”.

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  16. synred

    So who is more ‘moral’ — the Christian (or whatever) who doesn’t murder because God told him not too and fears God’s wrath or the atheist (like me) who doesn’t murder because he doesn’t want to?

    The percentage of murderers is not much different between Christians and atheist and such difference as there is, is likely economic in origin.

    This topic sounds off topic, but I haven’t caught up with this section yet.

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  17. Robin Herbert

    Hi Coel,

    Well, yes, people THINK that they mean something more than just reporting what they like or dislike, but I assert that that extra is an illusion, and that — when it boils down to it — all they’re doing — whether they realise it or not — is expressing likes and dislikes.

    I know you think that, but when I tested the theory by substituting your suggested meaning into Dawkins words it did not fit the context. Dawkins is not saying that women should have abortions because of his personal dislikes. Actually Dawkins means more or less what I said he means and I know this because Dawkins himself explained what he meant by the words.

    The fact that Dawkins adopts this framework because he likes it does not imply, as you are suggesting, that when he says “it is immoral” he really means “I don’t like it” without knowing it.

    Here is your logic: “John uses the word ‘sweet’ to denote the taste of things like sugar, syrup and honey. John likes sugar, syrup and honey. Therefore whenever John says that something is sweet, what he really means is that he likes it”.

    Doesn’t make sense.

    But why “ general well being” and “justice”? Because they’re what people want!

    Again no. That is like saying that John uses the word ‘sweet’ for the taste of sugar, syrup and honey because he likes sugar, syrup and honey.

    There is no inconsistency in attaching the meanings “general well being” and “justice” to the term “moral” even if you have no interest in general well being or justice. In fact this is quite common.

    You are conflating two issues 1) The meaning people attach to the word ‘moral’ and, 2) Whether or not people want to be moral in the sense they have defined. They are two different issues.

    The motivation for adopting one a word for a particular concept is usually so that we can be understood when we discuss them with others.

    If you drill down into any moral scheme, the only bedrock is a human preference.

    Which was obviously what I was suggesting, especially by choosing Richard Dawkins words as and example and pointing out that he clearly did not believe in any transcendent morality. So I am not sure why you are saying that, but it is again irrelevant to my point.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. brodix

    Imad,

    “That means you can’t simply say I like to murder people for sport and that would be the same as “It is moral for me to murder people for sport” but rather you have to justify why you think you should be allowed to do as such.

    These rules of morality are “real” in the sense that they are not based on what we believe but what we can rationally justify.”

    Possibly this is a point where the difference between “like” and “beneficial” is relevant. Rather than considering people, much of society is willing to accept killing animals for food, but many, if not most of those would reject the same killing if it were only for entertainment.

    Then we do kill each other in wars, not, presumably, because we like it, but because we deem it beneficial to our own group.

    So I would say there is a distinct need to clarify what constitutes being considered necessary, versus what only qualifies as entertainment.

    One could go through various well known religious texts for examples of behavior that would be considered amoral, but which is condoned when applied to those outside of one’s own circle.

    In some ways it is akin to an antibiotic reaction. As such, an area for scientific examination.

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  19. synred

    Still, by this route James arrived at his famous (and famously questionable) defense of theological beliefs: belief in God becomes “true” because “[it] yield religious comfort to a most respectable class of minds” (James 1907/1975, 40).

    Did James really advocate this? I read ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’ and don’t recall anything that nuts. It was a long time ago!

    I find this:

    The talk of believing by our volition seems, then, from one point of view, simply silly. From another point of view it is worse than silly, it is vile. When one turns to the magnificent edifice of the physical sciences, and sees how it was reared; … what submission to the icy laws of outer fact are wrought into its very stones and mortar; how absolutely impersonal it stands in its vast augustness — then how besotted and contemptible seems every little sentimentalist who comes blowing his voluntary smoke-wreaths, and pretending to decide things from out of his private dream! Can we wonder if those bred in the rugged and manly school of science should feel like spewing such subjectivism out of their mouths?… It is only natural that those who have caught the scientific fever should pass over to the opposite extreme. …

    That seems reasonable.

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  20. Thomas Jones

    Let’s forget emotivism for now. This comes up far more often than it should and can be easily googled. Even if one is not a moral realist, there are many reasons to suspect that emotivism is not helpful in any compelling way. Besides, it has little to do with the OP or the overall concern with what it means to make progress in science, philosophy, mathematics, and logic. Ethical landscapes will be addressed in about two weeks, so let’s assume we can cut and paste our comments here in that discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. garthdaisy

    Massimo,

    I know I won’t convince you but in my opinion evolutionary psychology is manifestly the greatest revelation of human nature and the best possible tool for understanding morality. it is confirmation of Aristotle’s genius and many Stoic ideas IMO. Strange you don’t see it as more of an ally of virtue ethics. It’s what made me a virtue ethicist.

    I would love it if you could give me an example of someone changing their desire in the way in which you describe. Or an example of how such a process would proceed. Perhaps that would help me understand what you mean. I have a feeling you’re talking more about suppressing a desire, or avoiding situations where a certain desire rears it’s ugly head, or habit replacement, etc. as opposed to actually changing an evolved desire. I just don’t think that’s possible. The best you can do is trick it or train your mind and habits to avoid it.

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  22. synred

    ” evolutionary psychology is manifestly the greatest revelation of human nature”

    Does it bother you that evolutionary psychology consist largely of ‘just so stories’. I don’t doubt the premise of EP, but do doubt you can deduce much from it, and I don’t think you can ever confirm any of ’em. Psychology does not fossilize.

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  23. garthdaisy

    Hi Coel

    I’m almost down off that ledge, and you’re doing a great job, but I’m going to need a little more clarification.

    “Whereas the moral realist has to establish an ethical system without any reference to our feelings or preferences on the matter”

    It didn’t say that in the definition of moral realism you provided. The moral realist simply asserts that moral facts exist independent of mind, not that a moral realist can account for them all or establish a normative ethical system. It’s a meta-ethical claim not an applied ethics claim. If morals are particles and real they exist independently of mind. Whether or not we currently have the computational power to unpack them all and create an ethical system using them seems moot to the meta-ethical claim of moral realism.

    It’s not like I want to be a moral realist. I’m trying to exclude it. But if morals are particles there are moral facts independent of mind. No? Help!

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  24. Massimo Post author

    synred,

    # ‘scientistically’ is not a word according to Word. It also seems to me to have a kind of derogatory flavor to it which it seems unlikely you intend. #

    you still use Word?! 😉 right, it’s not a common word, and yes it does (usually, not always) have a negative connotation. And that was my intended use of it.

    # What is ‘the OP’? Somehow I missed this bit of jargon and it is ungoogelable. #

    Sorry, I picked that up recently myself: Original Post.

    Which reminds me, people, you really think a sustained discussion of moral realism belongs to a post on the nature of scientific progress??

    Coel,

    # Singer’s applied ethics always were steeped in moral realism #

    Maybe, but I always understood, and sometimes even agreed, with Singer’s reasoning, even though my metaethics is wholly different from his. So no, moral realism isn’t necessary in order to talk about ethics in a normative sense.

    garth,

    # I know I won’t convince you but in my opinion evolutionary psychology is manifestly the greatest revelation of human nature and the best possible tool for understanding morality #

    You are right, you are not going to convince me.

    And no, please don’t bring in Aristotle and the Stoics. They believed in a human nature, and that ethics has to be informed by our best understanding of it. But evopsych tells us precious little about that, because of it’s highly speculative nature. Good old fashioned psychology is much more informative in that sense.

    Even so, neither Aristotle nor the Stoics would then go on and read their ethics from simple empirical facts. That’s why they stressed reasoning (“logic” for the Stoics), not just science (“physics” for the Stoics).

    # I would love it if you could give me an example of someone changing their desire in the way in which you describe. #

    Myself, a number of times during my life. But don’t take my word for it, just check out the literature on cognitive behavioral and similar kinds of therapies.

    No, I’m not talking about suppressing or avoiding, but changing, desires. With reflection and behavior modification techniques one eventually simply stops having certain cravings and develops others. Aristotle wrote about that too.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. garthdaisy

    Synred,

    “Does it bother you that evolutionary psychology consist largely of ‘just so stories’.”

    No, because a “just so story” is just a pejorative for a well evidenced and conceived scientific hypothesis that makes perfect sense and is as of yet unrefuted. Evolutionary biology is certainly no just so story, and evolutionary psychology follows logically and manifestly from evolutionary biology.

    And much of evo-psych IS actually testable, and manifestly observable. Just have more than one kid. It’s actually a myth the none of it is testable. Besides, gravitational waves were untestable until just the other day. So who knows. In the meantime I’ll take this perfectly sensible and evidence based just so story over any other theory of human nature or morality.

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  26. Coel

    Hi Imad,

    Morality for me simply means rules that we use to govern how to we ought to behave towards one another, that are determined by rational inquiry into what those specific rules should be.

    But no amount of rational inquiry on its own will give you moral rules; you also need values. Those values — I assert — are desires of humans; there isn’t anything else.

    … like the Veil of Ignorance, that allows moral reasoning to be objective in the sense that it is not based on any particular persons likes or dislikes, preferences or prejudices but on reasoning that would be conducted within that veil …

    To me, the Veil of Ignorance is the epitome of a *subjective* moral scheme, since it is rooted in human choice. Would you choose Package A or Package B? Yes, reasoning is involved, but in the end if comes down to a *preference* based on what you *want*.

    If moral realism were true there would have to be a “right” outcome that would be “right”, regardless of what people thought about it, and even if they’d hate it and would never choose it.

    Hi Robin,

    I know you think that, but when I tested the theory by substituting your suggested meaning into Dawkins words it did not fit the context.

    I agree that Dawkins, and most people, and indeed the language, sounds moral realist. I assert that people are mistaken in presuming moral realism in everyday language, and that — when it boils down to it — the only sensible interpretation of their language is the emotivist one. I am thus suggesting that every moral realist is mistaken in what they think they mean by “moral” (= error theory).

    Here is your logic: “John uses the word ‘sweet’ to denote the taste of things like sugar, syrup and honey. John likes sugar, syrup and honey. Therefore whenever John says that something is sweet, what he really means is that he likes it”.

    Sweetness can be established and measured objectively, in the sense that the concentration of certain chemicals is an objective fact. You cannot establish “moral rightness” objectively, nor can you link it to some objective fact akin to “sugar concentration”.

    Hi garthdaisy,

    But if morals are particles there are moral facts independent of mind. No? Help!

    The “morals are particles” idea is the desperation of the moral realist! It is an utterly weird idea that no-one has been able to turn into a sensible conception.

    If I say that an electron is a particle with an electric charge of +1, I am making a statement about how it interacts with photons. If I invoke a new “moral particle” with a “moral rightness” of +1, what am I then actually saying? I would have no idea what that is supposed to mean, and neither do the moral realists.

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  27. garthdaisy

    Hi Massimo,

    “With reflection and behavior modification techniques one eventually simply stops having certain cravings and develops others.”

    That is just so vague. No specific examples? I am aware of behavior therapy, but I think it changes behavior not desire. A specific example would really help.

    “Even so, neither Aristotle nor the Stoics would then go on and read their ethics from simple empirical facts. That’s why they stressed reasoning (“logic” for the Stoics), not just science (“physics” for the Stoics).”

    Me too. Not sure where you got the idea I think science is everything. Science informs us about moral intuitions but we still need philosophy reasoning and logic to figure out what to do with that information.

    “Which reminds me, people, you really think a sustained discussion of moral realism belongs to a post on the nature of scientific progress??”

    Well in a courtroom one might argue “but your honor, he did open the door by raising the contentious issue of “moral facts.”

    And I hate to say it but some people might have avoided dealing with the OP to be kind. Overall I could not be more complimentary of this project I think you are doing an amazing thing here, seriously. Thank you. But I felt like with this post you were trying to throw a question mark on the progress of science by citing the fact that philosophers can’t agree on a definition of truth. Just because many scientists would concur with the CToT doesn’t make science complicit in the fact that “the concept of “truth” itself is fraught with surprising difficulties”. That is philosophy’s problem and has no impact on the progress of science. And I am someone who completely agrees with you that philosophy is useful and makes progress and that the physicists who say otherwise are flat wrong and proving themselves so by using philosophy to make their point. But I don’t think this section did your thesis any favors, And I promise I take no pleasure in saying that. I really do love your work. We just disagree on some very prickly issues.

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  28. Massimo Post author

    garth,

    # But I felt like with this post you were trying to throw a question mark on the progress of science by citing the fact that philosophers can’t agree on a definition of truth. #

    That is not at all what I did or try to do. You may want to re-read the OP, I am certain you misunderstood it.

    Also, judging from your comment, you have clearly not looked into the CBT and similar literature.

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