Why neuroscience is largely irrelevant to ethics

Benjamin Libet, neuroscientist

A few days ago, over at my other blog, I published an article that I touted on my social media as “the last piece on free will you will ever need to read.” That was a slight exaggeration, but only slight. The specific point of the post was to explain in some detail the ancient Stoic take on human decision making, what I and modern psychologists prefer to call volition rather than free will (given how loaded with metaphysical nonsense the latter term is). I also wanted to see how the Stoic position squares with the findings of modern science. As it turns out, that ancient view is highly compatible with what contemporary cognitive science says about the matter, but this is neither a miraculous coincidence nor indication that somehow the Stoics managed to anticipate scientific discoveries that would be made more than two millennia later. (Which would be just as preposterous as to maintain, as some do, that the pre-Socratic atomists “anticipated” modern physics. They didn’t, as even a superficial reading of the pre-Socratics, and a passing acquaintance with modern physics, should amply demonstrate.)

Rather, the reasons we still find so much of value in Stoic (or Aristotelian, or several other) ancient moral philosophy are twofold: first, some of the ancients were keen observers of human psychology; second, moral discourse has little to do with whatever mechanisms make it possible for human brains to think about morality (so long as some mechanisms that allow us to think do exist, of course). Both notions need to be unpacked a bit, which is what I intend to do in this essay.

What was so special about Aristotle, or Epicurus, or Epictetus? In a sense, not much. They were sharp thinkers who paid attention to the empirical side of what they were thinking about. We tend to forget that many others at the time and since have written about the same topics, and yet they are completely forgotten, or they appear at best as footnotes in philosophy books. (Have you ever heard of Aristippus of Cyrene? Not likely, and he was one of the major figures among the minor Greek philosophers…)

The reasons we read some ancient philosophers are, so to speak, evolutionary. Specifically, the cultural analogues of two basic processes that steer biological evolution: drift and selection. Drift is about statistical sampling: some books survive and others don’t because of luck. There probably never were too many copies — by modern standards — of the works of Chrysippus, one of the most noted Hellenistic philosophers, and unfortunately not a single one has come down to us. Selection makes it so that whatever authors are highly esteemed not just by their contemporaries, but further and further down in history, are the ones whose works and ideas tend to survive. In the case of Chrysippus, we know a good amount about what he thought because so many later commentators copied several of his passages, in order to praise him or criticize him. To put it into another fashion, we still read Plato and Aristotle because of what biologist Jacque Monod once called a combination of chance and necessity.

But we don’t read all of Plato and Aristotle nowadays, unless we are historians of philosophy, or of science. There isn’t much point in consulting Aristotle’s Physics if you are a physicist, because the field has moved very far from the Aristotelian positions, beginning with Galileo and arriving at Einstein and Stephen Hawking. By contrast, philosophers still find a lot of value in the Nichomachean Ethics. Ill informed people (who shall here go unmentioned) are under the impression that this is because philosophy, unlike physics, doesn’t make progress (usually, these people just happen to be physicists). But that’s sheer ignorance, which ought (morally) to be embarrassing. Philosophy does make progress (see here), but it is a very different kind of endeavor from physics, so any direct comparison is a category mistake.

No, the reason Aristotle, the Stoics, and so forth are relevant today (other than the above mentioned one that they were la creme de la creme of their period) is that modern science has little of relevance to say about certain branches of philosophy, and in particular ethics. (Yes, I know, certain individuals are making a cottage industry of arguing the opposite. But they too shall go mercifully unmentioned in this post. I’ve dealt with them ad nauseam in the past.)

The reason this is the case has been explained by philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Wilfrid Sellars, and is exemplified by the work of neuroscientist Benjamin Libet. Let me explain.

First, Wittgenstein. In Tractatus 4.111 he famously wrote that “philosophy is not one of the natural sciences,” adding at 4.112 that “philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts.” In the Philosophical Investigations we find:

“[Philosophy’s] investigation is a grammatical one. Such an investigation sheds light on our problem by clearing misunderstandings away. Misunderstandings concerning the use of words, caused, among other things, by certain analogies between the forms of expression in different regions of language.” (90)

While I think that Wittgenstein had too narrow a view of what philosophy does, there is quite a bit of truth in the above. The job of philosophers isn’t to discover new things about the world (we’ve got science for that), but rather to clarify issues by way of critical analysis, and to see how things that appear disparate “hang together,” so to speak. That is, for instance, why metaphysics isn’t being replaced by physics, it is transforming itself into a discipline informed by physics (and biology, and other sciences) whose objective is to make sense of the picture of the world that emerges from the discoveries of individual special sciences, something that no single science does or is concerned with. (See, for instance, Ladyman and Ross’ Every Thing Must Go, a sort of manifesto for a naturalistic metaphysics.)

Wittgenstein becomes even more relevant to the present discussion when we consider his concept of “language games” as presented in the Investigations:

“The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words ‘block,’ ‘pillar,’ ‘slab,’ ‘beam.’ A calls them out; B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. Conceive this as a complete primitive language.” (2)

Ethics is another language game, or, rather, a multiplicity of language games, since there are a number of ways to conceive, talk about, and actually do, ethics. Within the human community, we talk about “good,” “bad,” “moral,” “immoral,” “ought,” and so forth, and any competent language user understands what others mean by those words. Moreover, .just like the words of the builder’s language actually help building things, so the words of ethical language actually help regulate our actions within a given community. The fact that science comes in and, say, tells us that “bricks” are really mostly empty space is interesting from within the science language game, but it is utterly useless, and indeed a distraction, to the builder. Analogously, that a neuroscientist may be able to tell us which parts of the human brain are involved in the production of ethical judgments, and by which cellular means, is interesting within the language game of neuroscience, but it is a useless distraction if we are concerned with improving social justice, or becoming a better person.

Which brings me to what I have termed the most important philosopher you likely never heard of: Wilfrid Sellars. My friend Dan Kaufman and I did an extensive video conversation on Sellars, which I think is worth checking out. One of Sellars’ landmark ideas was the distinction between what he called the manifest and the scientific images of the world. The manifest image is the way most people understand and navigate the world. The Sun “rises,” genocide is morally repellant. That sort of thing. The scientific image, by contrast, is the way science looks at the world: the Sun does not, actually, rise; it is the Earth that rotates on its axis. As for genocide? Ah, therein lies the rub. I’m sure there are scientific explanations for why genocide is such a recurring feature of human history, from the biology and neuroscience of violence to those of inter-group relations. While such scientific understanding of genocide may be useful, it does not give us the complete picture. Why not?

Because, according to Sellars, the manifest, but not the scientific, image deals with things like reasons and values. This is not a call to reject science. On the contrary. Sellars was quite clear that whenever the scientific and the manifest images of the world are in conflict (as in “the Sun rises” vs “the Earth rotates” case), then the sensible thing is for us to yield to science. But science simply isn’t in the business of doing a number of other things for which we have developed different tools: philosophy, literature, history, and so forth. These tools are complementary with, not opposed to, scientific ones. Ideally, says Sellars, we want to develop a conceptual stereoscopic vision, whereby we are capable of integrating the manifest and scientific images. Indeed, according to Sellars — and I wholeheartedly agree — developing and constantly updating such vision is a major task of philosophy, and our discipline is uniquely positioned to carry the task out because of both its methods (empirically-informed critical discourse) and its scope (very, very broad).

In a sense, what emerges from Wittgenstein, but even more so from Sellars’ thought is that there are a number of things about which we can talk at different levels of analysis, and which level(s) make the most sense depends on what it is that we wish to accomplish. While in theory a full integration of all levels may be possible, in practice it is often not desirable, because it doesn’t help with the particular language game we happen to be playing.

Let me then come back to “free will” (or volition), and use my discussion of Stoic philosophy as it compares to the famous experiments by Benjamin Libet to present a specific example of what I have outlined above, attempting to convince you of why I think science is largely irrelevant to moral discourse.

The Stoics thought that we have a faculty of judgment, which they call the hêgemonikon. It was a major goal of Stoic training to improve the way we use it, i.e., to arrive at better and better judgments about whatever life throws at us. In the post at my other blog I suggest that, roughly speaking, the hêgemonikon corresponds to the frontal lobes of the human brain, which are far more developed than in most other mammals, and are known to be associated, in fact, with our capacity for judgment, and in particular with our ability to “veto,” so to speak, certain actions that might otherwise come natural to us (as in: “there is a strange noise in my house in the middle of the night! Someone is about to kill me!! I need to run the hell out of here!!! … Oh, wait, it’s the cat. Back to sleep).

The Stoics themselves were spectacularly wrong about the likely location of the hêgemonikon: they thought it resided in the heart. But pretty much everything else they said about its functioning and how we can improve it was right on the money, as shown by the fact that 23 centuries later Stoic “psychology” still informs a number of evidence based psychotherapies, such as rational emotive behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.

How is this possible? Because most of what the Stoics thought about the hêgemonikon was part of the manifest image, and was useful then as it is now for the simple reason that people still deal with the same basic issues: unhealthy emotions like anger and fear, and the search for better ways to relate to others and improve the human polis. What the Stoics got wrong, not at all surprisingly, is the bit that belongs to the scientific image: as it turns out, our faculty of judgment depends on a particular part of the brain, not the heart. Crucially, though, this has had no effect whatsoever on Stoic philosophy or its usefulness. A modern Stoic simply updates that bit of information, thanks the scientist, and goes back to her practice.

Nowadays, whenever the topic of human volition comes up someone is bound to cite the famous experiments carried out by Benjamin Libet, beginning in 1983. Briefly, he asked subjects to follow the movements of a dot on the screen of an oscilloscope. The dot moved like the hands of a clock, but faster. Libet told his subjects to move a finger at a moment of their choice during the experiment, noting the position of the dot when they became aware of their decision to act. The experiment showed that the decision to move the finger entered conscious awareness about 200 milliseconds before the actual movement. But, stunningly, there was a rise in the so-called “readiness potential,” which is thought to be associated with the preparation for action, about 550 milliseconds before movement. So the subjects appeared to get ready to move the finger a full 350 milliseconds before they became conscious of their decision to do so. (Indeed, in later experiments, the readiness potential has been shown to build up even as long as 1.5 seconds before movement.)

Taken at face value, Libet’s results seem to show that we decide our actions unconsciously, and that what we call consciousness is simply a (late) awareness of a decision that has been made. There are several well known criticisms of such conclusion, beginning with the obvious one, that the experimental conditions have precious little to do with the recursive, complex behavior that we normally label “conscious decision making,” and which is understood as a continuous feedback loop between what Daniel Kahneman calls System I (fast, subconscious) and System II (slow, deliberate) brain processing systems. Moreover, recent research has both amply confirmed, and yet significantly re-interpreted, Libet’s original findings.

But a good reason to think that Libet’s experiments do not mean what so many enthusiasts of the “free will is an illusion” bandwagon seem to think they mean, is Libet’s own commentary:

“The finding that the volitional process is initiated unconsciously leads to the question: is there then any role for conscious will in the performance of a voluntary act? The conscious will does appear 150 msec before the motor act, even though it follows the onset of the cerebral action by at least 400 msec. That allows it, potentially, to affect or control the final outcome of the volitional process. An interval msec before a muscle is activated is the time for the primary motor cortex to activate the spinal motor nerve cells, and through them, the muscles. During this final 50 msec, the act goes to completion with no possibility of its being stopped by the rest of the cerebral cortex. The conscious will could decide to allow the volitional process to go to completion, resulting in the motor act itself. Or, the conscious will could block or ‘veto’ the process, so that no motor act occurs.” (B. Libet, Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness, 2004, p. 137)

[Once more, to preempt distracting discussions: I do not think we should talk about “free will,” which is a hopelessly metaphysically confused concept. We are talking about what psychologists themselves call volition, i.e., the ability of human beings to make complex decisions informed by conscious thought. Hopefully no one will deny that we do have such ability.]

Interestingly, studies have found very good experimental evidence for the veto power Libet is talking about. But that is “interesting” from within the language game of neuroscience. It makes no difference at all in terms of the language game in which the Stoics — and most of us — are engaged, that of improving ourselves as individuals and of making society a better place for everyone to live.

That is why, as a scientist, I will keep following with interest the undoubtedly fascinating future developments of cognitive and neuro-science. But it is also why, as a philosopher and human being, I’m not very concerned with how those findings will impact my day to day life in the realm of ethics. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus aptly put it:

“You are not flesh or hair but volition; if you keep that beautiful, then you will be beautiful.” (Discourses III.1.40)

142 thoughts on “Why neuroscience is largely irrelevant to ethics

  1. Philosopher Eric

    Given that I view morality (i.e. rightness and wrongness) as a social construct, neuroscience seems like a silly way to explore it. Shall we explore the phenomenon of “marriage” or the number “four” by means of neuronal interactions as well? 🙂 If I didn’t think that Massimo could demonstrate that there are various prominent people today who want neuroscience to be used in this very capacity, I might accused him of whacking a strawman to pitch his own ideologies!

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  2. brodix

    Massimo,

    The source of my confusion was in the terms offered, “manifest,” versus “scientific.” So I was just framing it in a way that made more sense to me.
    As I’ve argued before, I see reality in terms of the relationship between energy pushing out and form pushing in. Whether it is a galaxy, with radiation pushing out and mass/gravity pulling in, or society, with dynamic social energies pushing out and civil and cultural forms pulling in. Which goes to the issue of aging(and time) as well, as youth pushes out, while age gives structure and focus from experience.
    The problem seems to be formulating this essential duopoly in a more western monolithic frame. Be it a classic top down, Big Father knows best monotheism, or the scientific, ‘if we examine everything in infinite detail, we will know everything’ version.

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  3. brodix

    “the explanation is twofold: biologically, highly social and intelligent primates need a way to get along, hence the origin of our sense of right and wrong.”

    So we arrive at the same conclusion from slightly different directions. Organic individuals giving life to an ongoing culture. Trees and forest.

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  4. Coel

    Massimo,

    Could you please provide a single reference to a peer review paper that backs up this claim?

    Most of science operates on a unity-of-science model (that is, as scientists understand that concept). Thus just about every science paper of an interdisciplinary nature (or even a within-disciplinary nature) adopts that idea. Ideas that would violate unity-of-science would be ideas such as “strong emergence”, which are pretty much unsupported by any evidence and are non-starters.

    There is absolutely nothing about either physics or chemistry in Darwin. Did you actually read it?

    Darwin knew little about how things work at the molecular level. But we do now. Thus “biochemistry” is a good example of a field linking two sciences (biology and chemistry), and yes you do get lots of money for studying biochemistry (especially from drugs companies) and status (such as Nobel prizes).

    Between biology and chemistry there is not any great divide (as there might have been if dualistic and vitalistic ideas had turned out correct), there is a just more science. And yes, Darwin’s ideas do explain how biology produces teleonomy, emergent from chemistry, thence physics.

    All of this fits together like a jigsaw, where ideas and explanations interlock with mutual consistency. That’s what scientists mean by “unity of science”, and it works. It doesn’t need philosophers to come along and tell us how all of this “hangs together”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Coel

    ej,

    [Responsibility] is a matter of social obligation, which takes the debate outside of the realm of science or metaphysics, and into the province of social discussion, expectation, and the institutions formed out of these.

    Humans and their social interactions are a a natural part of the natural world. Studying humans is just as much within the “realm of science” as anything else.

    Chimpanzees have social interactions and they have their own moral codes (more rudimentary than ours of course). Would anyone say that studying chimps is not within the realm of science?

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  6. Massimo Post author

    Robin,

    “no, I don’t know what these words mean. I don’t know what people mean when they say that I ought not to do certain things and I want to know why.”

    Forgive me, but it sounds like you and Coeal could use a good dictionary. Maybe for Christmas?

    Brodix,

    Oh c’mon, this has nothing to do with galaxies, radiation, mass or gravity! Both the OP and the link to my original discussion with Dan ought to make crystal clear what Sellars meant by scientific and manifest images.

    Coel,

    “Most of science operates on a unity-of-science model”

    You mean that most scientists assume the model without discussion or understanding. Sure, that’s true.

    “Darwin knew little about how things work at the molecular level. But we do now”

    Ah, the old bait and switch. I’m pretty confident you were talking about Darwin. Still, nobody is denying that there are sciences, like biochemistry, that bridge a couple of fields. What is being denied here is the more encompassing notion of a fundamental unity of science, which you have done nothing to support.

    “All of this fits together like a jigsaw, where ideas and explanations interlock with mutual consistency”

    Again, nobody has been arguing that things are “inconsistent.” Biology doesn’t violate any laws of physics, nor does sociology. But physics is relevant to only certain areas of biology, and entirely irrelevant to sociology. The explanatory concepts being deployed are completely different, hence the disunity thesis.

    “Humans and their social interactions are a a natural part of the natural world. Studying humans is just as much within the “realm of science” as anything else.”

    Has anyone here argued otherwise?

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  7. Robin Herbert

    Ej,

    Responsibility is not – and, despite arguments on all sides, never has been – a matter of free will or determinism. It is a matter of social obligation

    You speak as though it can’t be both.

    . No one lives free; and no one lives as automaton.

    When people talk of “free will” they do not mean absolute freedom from any kind of influence, so that is rather a straw man.

    Say I witness a person being mugged from my window on the third floor. You might say that I had an obligation to render help and I might agree.

    But perhaps I had no phone and none of my neighbours were in and maybe there was no way to get down there and over to help before the mugger had completed the crime and run off.

    It would be silly to say that I had failed my social obligation in the way I would have failed my social obligation if I had been standing next to him with a pistol and a mobile phone and done nothing.

    The physical impossibility of preventing him from being mugged is a salient moral fact. You wouldn’t say that I was morally culpable for failing to prevent what was impossible for me to prevent, would you?

    So the deterministic factors, my distance from the crime, no physical method of communicating with someone who could help, etc are obviously factors which need to be considered when debating moral responsibility.

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  8. Robin Herbert

    Massimo,

    Forgive me, but it sounds like you and Coeal could use a good dictionary. Maybe for Christmas?

    If someone tells me that I am morally obliged to do X and I do not agree that I am morally obliged to do X but we agree on the relevant empirical facts of the matter then our disagreement hinges on what we mean by a moral obligation.

    If there is a dictionary that would clear up that impasse then I will happily buy everyone a copy of that excellent book for Christmas.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Massimo Post author

    No Robin, it doesn’t mean that. It means that your respective value judgments differ, given the same facts, a very common situation in ethics and the very reason “science” isn’t going to settle ethical disputes (though, again, it informs them, since the empirical facts ought (ah!) to be the starting point for discussion).

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Robin Herbert

    Massimo

    No Robin, it doesn’t mean that. It means that your respective value judgments differ, given the same facts, a very common situation in ethics and the very reason “science” isn’t going to settle ethical disputes (though, again, it informs them, since the empirical facts ought (ah!) to be the starting point for discussion).

    But there would be a fact of the matter about what I value and a fact of the matter about what he values and we could agree on what he values and what I value and yet still disagree on whether a moral obligation existed.

    So we are still back to the question of just what a moral obligation is.

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  11. Massimo Post author

    Robin, again, no. Your disagreement will persist not because either of you doesn’t know what a moral obligation is, but because you disagree — because of divergent values — that X is or is not a moral obligation. For instance, an extreme libertarian may argue that taxes are theft, so he thinks he has no moral obligation to pay them. You may think that taxes are necessary in any functional society (setting aside how much taxing and for what specific pursposes), and you value a functional society, so you feel a moral obligation to pay them. Your disagreement is about values, not facts, and certainly not the meaning of moral obligation.

    I’m genuinely confused by your confusion.

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  12. Robin Herbert

    Massimo

    I’m genuinely confused by your confusion.

    And I, in turn, am genuinely confused by your confusion.

    As usual there is a key question that can clarify.

    Say Bill and John are the protagonists in your example, Bill the extreme libertarian and John the other.

    Bill can completely agree that John’s values are the promulgation of a functional society.

    John can completely agree that Bill’s values are absolute liberty of the individual.

    There is absolutely no disagreement between them on what each others value systems are.

    So is there now complete agreement? Bill can agree that the obligation exists under John’s value system and John can agree that the obligation does not exist under Bill’s value system.

    Or might they still disagree on whether or not the obligation exists?

    If so then each of them thinks that their value system accords more closely to what a moral obligation actually is, so they are still disagreeing on what a moral obligation is.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Massimo Post author

    Robin,

    If I hadn’t known you (so to speak) for years I would suspect you are just trolling. Again, what is the problem? Yes, they Bill understands John’s values, and vice versa, but obviously they disagree that those values are compelling. That’s not because they don’t know what a moral obligation is, they simply disagree on the specific instances.

    Take a non-moral example: Jane and I read two books, and we recommend them to each other. She tells me I should read War and Peace, I tell her she should read a graphic novel based on the superhero Flash. We both claim our suggestions are examples of great books, but Jane insists that I am mistaken. It’s not that we don’t have a concept of what a great book is (a book that is so well written and about such a compelling subject matter that anyone who claims to be literate ought to read it). We disagree on which specific books qualify.

    And just as in the case of Bill and John, Jane and I can argue our case, attempting to persuade the other that X really is a valid moral obligation, or a great book. Jane is right, by the way.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. brodix

    Massimo,

    My issue is with the assumptions in “manifest.” The rural wasp culture I was raised in was getting past its sell by date by the time I was born, other than for to those with serious income. I grew up spending more time around animals, than people. So my manifest understanding doesn’t have as many commonalities with most other people.
    Given all the issues I keep raising, I just don’t know how to make that any more clear. I suppose most of what I say doesn’t get much consideration, but I see various patterns running through this reality and they are my “manifest.”

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Massimo Post author

    Of course I have no trouble spelling it out, nor do you, really: a moral obligation is an act someone should perform because it is the right thing to do. The right thing to do, before you ask, is defined from within a particular moral framework. Which means that it may (or may not) be different for, say, a Christian vs a Stoic vs a Utilitarian. See? Easy!

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  16. Massimo Post author

    Brodix,

    You begin to sound like Robin. Is there a virus going around? “Manifest” here doesn’t mean that everyone agrees on it, it just means as perceived and constructed by a normal human being, without the aid of scientific methods or instruments. Scientists themselves don’t necessarily agree on what count as specific aspects of the scientific image — hence controversies about string theory and the like…

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Mr.

    SG:

    The Augustine reference also, for me, reinforces the idea that Wittengenstein was a kind of neo-Platonist.

    I think I wasn’t clear enough on this, but this is the wrong way to take it. As Massimo suggests in his follow-up, W’s remarks in PI should be taken as a rather radical critique of (neo)Platonist accounts of meaning (not to mention the sorts of nominalist theories that crop up in the medieval stories and in their early modern heirs).

    If anything W’s later views might be more compatible with Aristotelianism — which is why you have figures like Anscombe, Geach, Foot, Murdoch, John McDowell and Alasdair MacIntyre borrowing Wittgensteinian methods to defend at least the practical elements of Aristotelian philosophy. In any case, it wouldn’t be right to take him as positing any sort of independent entities or objects apart from the language and the actions and practices to which the words belong. What’s there is what’s there, no need for any metaphysics.

    synred:

    That is not my experience of how my kid learned nor my granddaughter.

    Of course not. I have children myself and I don’t recall ever doing anything as simple as pointing and saying a word as an exclusive way of teaching. But this is the point: I have sometimes done things like this, so it’s not an utterly implausible thing to imagine. W isn’t trying to say “this is how we teach language”, even less to indicate that anyone has actually ever done so. It’s a toy case — hence the “game” terminology — to indicate some of the problems with theories of meaning that had fixed themselves in the Western canon.

    More, and I think this is really the key thing for W, the fact that pointing and naming is not the basic thing in language — because we can so readily recognize slab-language as both primitive and an unwieldy thing in comparison with any actual human language — tells us a lot about how we do learn language and teach it to others. There’s a lot more going on in language than representationalist theories of meaning can get us to — it’s not about picking out the referent of a word or even the truth-conditions of a sentence, or locating some ineffable “meaning objects” which exist apart from the concrete uses of language.

    A language-game isn’t anything mysterious — it’s uses of words/symbols/expressions in the context of the activities which are both part of the expressive activity (one uses the slab language presumably because one is building something with slabs) and which make the expressions themselves intelligible (playing the ‘language-game’ of chess won’t get the slab speakers very far in their projects). These are meant to be perfectly ordinary things, so ordinary in fact that we’re tempted not to notice them at all, and to exclude them from the proper stuff of philosophy. The fact that we so often feel the need to posit Platonic objects or mysterious relations of correspondence between word and object and the like is one of the sources of trouble, which W is hoping to undermine.

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  18. Coel

    Massimo,

    The explanatory concepts being deployed are completely different, hence the disunity thesis.

    It’s clear that by the “disunity” thesis of science you are discussing the philosophical unity thesis. That is (I understand?) held to by no philosophers these days. It’s also not held to by any scientists (that I’m aware of) and never was (the idea was only ever developed among philosophers) and indeed very few scientists would even be aware of that thesis. (All of which leads me to wonder why you and Dan keep harking back to it?)

    I was discussing the scientific unity-of-science concept. Nothing you or Dan have said is a problem for it. Indeed it sounds as though you’d agree with it, since you seem to accept my “jigsaw” analogy and say that: “nobody has been arguing that things are inconsistent”.

    And yes, of course different explanations are used for different phenomena and for different levels of analysis! That is indeed what “higher level” means, using higher-level concepts (i.e. ones not applicable at the low level).

    The basic point is that all of this meshes together like a consistent jigsaw. A refutation of this “unity” thesis (this unity thesis) would have to be something like “strong emergence”.

    I’m pretty confident you were talking about Darwin.

    Yep, I was, and I’m sticking to it. The point is that Darwin’s ideas explain why teleonomy is an appropriate high-level explanation for the properties of evolved entities, even though at lower levels of explanation there is only physics and chemistry, and no teleonomy. Darwinism meshes the two together, explaining the weak emergence of higher-level properties. (This is thus an answer to Dan’s point, and why there is no problem for the scientific unity thesis.)

    There would only be a problem if we could not in any way explain the behaviour of life emerging from an underlying substrate of physics and chemistry (and so had to resort to dualism and vitalism).

    You mean that most scientists assume the model without discussion or understanding. Sure, that’s true.

    If you mean “scientists assume the philosophical-version unity thesis without discussion and understanding” then no they don’t, they don’t even know about it.

    If you mean that “scientists assume the scientific-version unity thesis without discussion and understanding” then, again, no, they do understand it just fine. And they adopt it because it demonstrably works! They can see and test it working, and so see it as a good idea.

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  19. Coel

    Massimo,

    A while ago I asked you to explain your position on morals because neither I nor Robin could work it out. You ostensibly were arguing that morality is objective, but I couldn’t work out how attained that.

    … a moral obligation is an act someone should perform because it is the right thing to do. The right thing to do, before you ask, is defined from within a particular moral framework. Which means that it may (or may not) be different for, say, a Christian vs a Stoic vs a Utilitarian. See? Easy!

    You really want to argue that? So, what is or is not a “moral obligation” is only defined within a system? Thus, the Nazis (operating within a Nazi ideological moral system) had a moral obligation to eradicate the Jews from society.

    I can quite agree with you that given a particular ethical framework, then what is moral-within-that-framework is then objective. But surely you then face the question of choice of framework? How do you choose? If that choice derives from your personal value system, then the whole moral scheme is subjective because it rests on that subjective choice.

    And, in your system, can one adjudicate between the Nazi moral system and that of others, or not? It would seem strange to label morality “objective” if one could not, and yet how can one do it, in your scheme, lacking an agreed framework to apply?

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Robin Herbert

    Massimo

    Of course I have no trouble spelling it out, nor do you, really: a moral obligation is an act someone should perform because it is the right thing to do. The right thing to do, before you ask, is defined from within a particular moral framework. Which means that it may (or may not) be different for, say, a Christian vs a Stoic vs a Utilitarian. See? Easy!

    And do you maintain that a cinservative Christian, say, would agree that the right thing to do would depend upon the moral framework adopted?

    Liked by 1 person

  21. synred

    Massimo,

    Here is a paper Coel could a have sited:

    https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF02478215?LI=true

    I don’t know if it makes sense — I just skimmed the abstract.

    My own view is the the science are united by a common assumption — naturalism. And Coel that is metaphysics.

    We are disunited by the need because different, additional concepts are needed at different ‘levels’.

    Particles alone, don’t explain thermodynamics or chemistry. Chemistry alone does not explain biology. Biology alone does not explain sociology.

    Though, I would not think,Massimo, that you would say biology is irrelevant to sociology, though not as central as Wilson et al. would claim.

    Metaphysically, the sciences are united, epistemological not so much, though not completely disconnected either.

    Now even if had the ToE and could simulate it and watch as intelligent creatures, teleology and societies emerged that would NOT mean we understand sociology, biology or even chemistry. It would be a wonderful tool for understanding them, but or good or ill it is impossible.

    Simulations all the way down…

    https://skepticalsciencereviews.wordpress.com/story-land/ Causality and Eddy Pus are SciFi stories that use this simulation nonsense as part of the premise.

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  22. Robin Herbert

    The right thing to do, before you ask, is defined from within a particular moral framework. Which means that it may (or may not) be different for, say, a Christian vs a Stoic vs a Utilitarian.

    And is something the right thing to do because it is part of the framework? Or part of the framework because it is the right to hing to do?

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Massimo Post author

    Coel,

    There is no such thing as the scientific thesis about the unity of science. All such theses are, by their nature, philosophical, because they cannot possibly be settled by experiment or observation. Please stick to the conversation at hand rather than invent one that nobody is having.

    Consistency is woefully inadequate, unfortunately for your stance. Everything science says is “consistent” with logic, and yet nobody has ever argued for the science-logic unity thesis.

    “The point is that Darwin’s ideas explain why teleonomy is an appropriate high-level explanation for the properties of evolved entities, even though at lower levels of explanation there is only physics and chemistry, and no teleonomy.”

    Darwin did not do any such thing. As I said, there is no mention — at all — of either chemistry or physics in his work. His concepts are entirely independent of chemistry and physics, and indeed compatible with a number of different chemistries and physics. Good thing too, or the demise of Newtonian mechanics would have required a dramatic revision of evolutionary theory. It did not.

    “There would only be a problem if we could not in any way explain the behaviour of life emerging from an underlying substrate of physics and chemistry”

    Last time I checked we have no idea how life emerged from physics and chemistry. Or rather, we have many ideas, and no way to figure out if any of them are right.

    “So, what is or is not a “moral obligation” is only defined within a system? Thus, the Nazis (operating within a Nazi ideological moral system) had a moral obligation to eradicate the Jews from society.”

    So it seemed to them. Just read any Nazi pamphlet. The problem was with their framework, obviously. But that’s irrelevant to the question Robin was asking: “what do people mean by morally bad/good?”

    And I have explained several times, both here and at howtobeastoic.org, why that and similar frameworks have to be rejected, so I will not repeat it again.

    “surely you then face the question of choice of framework? How do you choose?”

    Go read the other blog.

    “can one adjudicate between the Nazi moral system and that of others, or not? It would seem strange to label morality “objective” if one could not”

    I have explained several times that “objective” doesn’t mean what you think it means. And it is certainly not equivalent to the notion of realism in ethics. And both of them are only partially relevant to my position, that is a type of ethical naturalism.

    Robin,

    “do you maintain that a cinservative Christian, say, would agree that the right thing to do would depend upon the moral framework adopted?”

    He wouldn’t, but why on earth would that matter? It still does.

    “is something the right thing to do because it is part of the framework? Or part of the framework because it is the right to hing to do?”

    There is no such thing as “the right thing to do” without a framework, but some frameworks are better than others. Why? Read my other blog, as I suggested to Coel.

    Synred,

    “My own view is the the science are united by a common assumption — naturalism. And Coel that is metaphysics.”

    I would agree with you, but Coel doesn’t. At any rate, naturalism is compatible with the disunity thesis as it is articulated in philosophy.

    “We are disunited by the need because different, additional concepts are needed at different ‘levels’.”

    Exactly. Much of fundamental physics is entirely irrelevant to the majority of other sciences, and indeed to quite a bit of physics too. If that’s not disunity I don’t know what is.

    “Though, I would not think,Massimo, that you would say biology is irrelevant to sociology, though not as central as Wilson et al. would claim.”

    The disunity thesis does not say that the special sciences are isolated atoms. Some are connected, some are relevant, in varying degrees, and for a variety of reasons. But there is nothing unifying the whole shebang.

    “Metaphysically, the sciences are united, epistemological not so much”

    The second is definitely true, the first is an assumption that I tend to agree with. But it is an assumption nonetheless.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. synred

    And do you maintain that a cinservative Christian, say, would agree that the right thing to do would depend upon the moral framework adopted?

    Well of course a conservative christian would not agree. He thinks the great alpha male in the sky tells him what’s moral and immoral.

    That does not mean what he takes as ‘the right thing’ does not depend on his moral frame work, however, he actually came by it.

    To me the conflict between ‘moral systems’ is the hard problem.

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  25. synred

    Last time I checked we have no idea how life emerged from physics and chemistry. Or rather, we have many ideas, and no way to figure out if any of them are right.

    Just because we have ‘no idea’ does not mean there isn’t one. In thermodynamics we had the wrong idea until Boltzmann came along…

    .

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  26. synred

    “By formulating a new stability kind in nature, Addy Pross has uncovered the chemical roots of Darwinian theory, thereby opening a novel route connecting biology to chemistry and physics.

    Pross, Addy. What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology (Oxford Landmark Science) (Kindle Locations 3-4). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

    People are trying to understand the chemistry–>life transition. This I find an interesting attempt, but I think not a total success, but a pretty good try.

    Anyway I have little doubt that life did originate in chemistry and there are plenty of scientist trying figure out how.

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  27. Robin Herbert

    As Neurath pointed out, the unity of science need not require any unity at the level of theory or even the assumption that such a unity was possible (still an open question at his time).

    This is because science must agree at the level of statements about observational data.

    If one theory says the apple falls up and the other says the apple falls down then one must be wrong.

    But if both theories agree on the motion of the apple then they can both be part of the unity of science even if, at a theoretical level they disagree.

    Neurath thought this important because different branches of science had to collaborate on particular problems, we might need physicists, chemists and psychologists to solve something.

    In this part I think he was right and you can see his influence in Quine’s Web of Belief.

    Unfortunately this was part of a broader project which proved wrongheaded.

    It is one of the babies which IMO should have been rescued from the Logical Positivist bathwater.

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