On Stephen Law on Scientism

scientism It’s good to see philosophers taking scientism seriously, and not just using the term as a bogey word. Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry are editing a forthcoming volume on scientism (Total Science, University of Chicago Press) and some of the essays are appearing on the internet.

I’ll discuss here the draft chapter by Stephen Law (Heythrop College, University of London) who writes, discussing the proper scope of science:

stephen_law

As a philosopher, you might expect me both to want to carve out some intellectual territory for philosophers to occupy, and also to resist the thought that philosophical questions and problems are either non-questions and non-problems or else questions that will be answered and problems that will be solved, if at all, through an application of the scientific method. I won’t disappoint. However, while I acknowledge that there are limits to science, I will argue these limits typically offer little comfort to religious, New Age, and other folk looking for ways to immunize their beliefs against scientific refutation.

As that last sentence suggests, science has been so successful in generating knowledge that it can be threatening to other beliefs. Do other belief systems have an independent validity, in domains of knowledge that are simply not the business of science, or can a scientific approach prevail in all domains? As Law says, the desire to limit science often originates from a desire to indulge beliefs that derive from wishful thinking, without feeling any need to supply science-grade evidence to back them up.

Law discusses Stephen Gould’s proposal of “non-overlapping magesteria” of knowledge, of which science would be only one. In contrast, scientism is the wholesale rejection of NOMA and the declaration that knowledge is a unified whole, and that the basic ways of finding things out that we refer to as “science” apply universally.

Let’s also be clear that scientism is not the claim that science can answer all questions, it’s the claim that there are no independent “ways of knowing” that can answer questions that science cannot. It is easy to think of questions that are meaningful but which we will never be able to answer (I’ve previously given some examples, including: What did Julius Caesar eat on the day three days before his eighth birthday, and did he stroke a dog on that day?).

Law is sympathetic to much of scientism and I won’t address the many parts of his chapter with which I agree. I’ll focus only on two areas where Law dissents from scientism:

Is philosophy distinct from science?

Law makes a case that “philosophy is essentially a non-scientific enterprise”, saying that “philosophical questions are for the most part conceptual rather than scientific or empirical”. As examples he gives two conceptual puzzles, one about family relationships at a family get-together, and the second about swimming in a river at different times: is it the same river?

Law explains that the puzzles “are essentially conceptual in nature” and can be solved by “armchair, conceptual methods” with no recourse to empirical evidence. Does that make them non-scientific? Law says yes: “there are perfectly good questions that demand answers, and that can be answered, though not by empirical means, let alone by that narrower form of empirical investigation referred to as ‘the scientific method’.”

I beg to differ, and would suggest that this misunderstands the nature of science. Science is indeed about empirical evidence, but that’s only the half of it. Science is just as much about concepts, or, to use the word more common within science, about models. Models are bundles of concepts that attempt to explain and synthesize empirical evidence into understanding. Science is thus an iteration between adapting models to better fit the data, and then obtaining more data to test the models.

Conceptual analysis is just as much part-and-parcel of that process as gathering empirical evidence. Clarifying the meaning of concepts and analysing their implications and mutual consistency is therefore just as important within science as in philosophy. One cannot properly compare models to empirical evidence unless one understands the models. Indeed, many scientists, such as theoretical physicists, spend their whole careers analysing and improving scientific concepts, and worrying about their consistency and their implications, rather than doing observation and experiment.

Ensuring that the models are all mutually consistent is often the hard bit. For example, a major current problem in physics is that the best model of large-scale behaviour, general relativity, is not consistent with the best model of small-scale behaviour, quantum mechanics, and a huge amount of effort is being expended in trying to make them consistent and unified.

Theoretical physics is “armchair conceptualising” (even if often aided by a computer), and indeed an archetype of the modern physicist is the wheelchair-bound Stephen Hawking. One of his biggest discoveries, the idea of Hawking radiation emitted by black holes, was arrived at by thinking about how the concepts of quantum mechanics would apply in the very-strong gravity near a black hole, and thus was conceptual analysis akin to that of philosophers; no-one has ever empirically observed Hawking radiation.

But, one might reply, the scientist’s concepts are still derived from empirical reality and are about empirical reality. Yes, true. Yet surely that is equally true of Law’s philosophical puzzles. The scenarios, such as relationships at a family get-together, and swimming in a river, are real-world examples, and the concepts being analysed (“family”, “father”, “swim”, “river”) are concepts developed and arrived at because they are useful in understanding the world around us, in the same way that we arrive at concepts of physics (“mass”, “gravity”, “radiation”).

Thus I would disagree with Stephen Law’s conclusion and argue that philosophy is not distinct from science, because conceptual analysis, and refining concepts and ensuring that they are coherent and consistent, are just as big a part of science as empirical observation.

Since conceptualising is a core part of the overall enterprise of “science”, philosophy is perhaps best regarded as being part of that broadly conceived scientific enterprise, which could equally be called by science’s older name of “natural philosophy”.

Philosophy is not distinct from science, it is a style of doing (broadly conceived) science, a tactic of asking certain sorts of conceptual questions in the same way that “experiment”, “observation”, “computational simulation” and “theorising” are all styles of doing science — and the ensemble works best with contributions from them all.

Mathematics and logic are other conceptual systems that, along with philosophy, are often regarded as distinct from science. And yet, these conceptual systems are still, ultimately, about the real world, adopted because they are useful for understanding the world, and thus they are akin to the conceptual systems that are part of science.

It can be argued that philosophers, logicians and mathematicians feel free to explore alternative realities, conceptual possibilities that are not necessarily instantiated in the observed world, but again the same holds in science. Often a theoretical physicist will explore the concepts themselves. That’s partly because a better understanding of the surrounding concepts helps in understanding those aspects that are physically instantiated, but also because we can often then find that the conceptual possibilities actually are instantiated.

The above case of Hawking radiation is one example. Dirac’s prediction of anti-matter, resulting purely from conceptual exploration, is another. The possibility of black holes, conceptualised long before there was observational evidence for them, is a third. Similarly, one can point to the mathematical exploration of non-Euclidean geometries, long before they gained applicability with Einstein’s relativity, and the concept of complex numbers, once a mathematical curiosity but now embedded in physics and engineering.

In his chapter, Law recognises much of the above, and does discuss the role of concepts within science. For example, he discusses Galileo’s famous thought experiment about dropping different-mass objects off the leaning tower of Pisa, showing that they must fall at the same rate by consideration of concepts alone, not by direct observation. Further, Law analyses the views of Richard Dawkins, and relates a discussion in which Dawkins argued similarly that conceptualising is a part of science, not distinct from it. Indeed Dawkins is a good example of a scientist whose major contributions to science have been “armchair conceptualising”, the thinking about concepts that is just as much a part of science as of philosophy.

Are morals outside the domain of science?

In his second example of a topic outside science, Stephen Law declares that: “science alone can neither directly reveal facts about what one ought or ought not to do, nor allow us legitimately to draw conclusions about what we ought or ought not to do”.

Those who have read my other posts on morality will know how I’ll respond. He’s right! Science cannot do those things! But that is no problem at all for scientism.

Science can not inform us as to what is objectively morally right or wrong because there is no such thing as objective moral right, and the quest for it is fundamentally misconceived. Morals are value judgements that people make about how people treat each other. “It is moral” means “I approve” and “It is immoral” means “I disapprove”.

That means that there is no abstract “what one ought or ought not to do”, there are only instrumental oughts that derive from people’s aims and values. The fact that science cannot provide “conclusions about what one ought or ought not to do” is not the result of any limitation in science, it is because there is no such thing in the abstract. Given an aim or value one can say what one “ought to do” in order to achieve or fulfil that desire (an instrumental “ought”). But in the abstract the question makes no sense.

As soon as one accepts that morality is subjective one can see that there is nothing about morals that is outside the domain of science. Yet, the idea that there is no objective “morally good”, no objective “what we should do”, is so counter to many people’s intuitions that this conclusion will continue to be rejected by many.

Law doesn’t really consider this position in his account of how scientism might be defended. The closest he comes is in considering the possible stance that morals are “meaningless”. He says: “If [moral questions] are ultimately illegitimate or meaningless, the onus is very much on the defenders of scientism wishing to take this route to show that that’s the case”.

But, in the account of morals that I’m defending, it is only the idea of objective morals that is incoherent and meaningless (morals are values, and one cannot have a value without a valuer). But that doesn’t make morals meaningless; subjective morals are full of meaning and are of every importance to us, just as our other values are.

To illustrate this, suppose someone exclaims, on tasting a dish: “That is delicious!”. Superficially this purports to be a statement about an objective property of the dish (that it is delicious), but of course it really means: “I like it”. Despite the superficial reading being wrong and misleading, we don’t then claim that the statement “It is delicious!” is meaningless, we simply interpret it as a statement about the subjective feelings of the speaker. We should do the same regarding moral language.

As I see it, the burden of proof is on those claiming that there is some objective standing to moral values, that the value holds even in the absence of a valuer, and that the “ought” holds even in the absence of any sentient being pursuing an aim or goal. Establishing that concept as being outside science is something that could only be done once we know what the concept actually means, and so far — despite the best attempts of the majority of philosophers who hold to moral realism — we don’t.

If “it is morally good” doesn’t mean “I approve of it” then what does it mean? When Stephen Law says that science cannot tell us “what one ought or ought not to do”, what does the phrase “ought to do”, as used there, actually mean? These are fun questions to ask a moral realist. We ought to do it because it is morally good … and it is morally good because we ought to do it, and … but so far I’ve never come across an actual answer.

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24 thoughts on “On Stephen Law on Scientism

    1. Coel Post author

      Thanks Ron, that’s an interesting article of yours. I do think that many philosophers view science much too narrowly and don’t have a proper feel for it, even if we’re talking only about science in the narrow domains that everyone regards as science.

  1. Patrice Ayme

    What Is Moral To A Lion?
    What Is Moral To A Chimpanzee?
    What is the Origin of Morality?
    The mos maiorum (“way of the elders”; plural of mos, behavior, is “mores”). The unwritten code of the Republican Romans, comprising: Fides, Disciplina, Pietas, Gravitas, Religio, Cultus, Dignitas, Auctoritas, Virtus…
    This is where the concept of “Moral” comes from.
    These behaviors, as a set, enabled the Roman Republic to survive for 5 centuries (or more, if one considers the empire and the subsequent “Christian Republic” as an extension of the Republic, as the Roman did; de facto, we are still under basic Roman secular law, 25 centuries later).

    This gives a philosophical hint. Philosophy is the art of guessing what could be, may be, could well be, ought to be, etc. For morality, it is beyond a guess:

    “Mores”, “Morality” has to do with survival.

    There is a continuum between natural and (epi-)genetic ethology, and cultural ethology: the study of chimpanzees shows this. The very Christian Jane Goodall found, to her dismay, that the chimpanzees she studied made, over many years, a systematic war of extermination against another group of chimps.

    The origin of morality is survival. The set of all moral behaviors (“mores”) is the set which enables survival. Survival of the individual, the group, a society, even a civilization.

    For example Polynesian societies needed to corral strongly behaviors and human population on their delicate islands. Hence taboos (don’t fish there, don’t go into that valley, etc.) and cannibalism (often entangled with religion, as Captain Cook experienced).

    The Aztecs, deprived of massive proteins (differently from other civilizations around, which had access to fish), made a religion centered on human butchery (this enabled Cortez to rise an army of 80,000 natives to fight the Aztecs, massively amplifying his very small army).

    Coel states: If “it is morally good” doesn’t mean “I approve of it” then what does it mean? When Stephen Law says that science cannot tell us “what one ought or ought not to do”, what does the phrase “ought to do”, as used there, actually mean? These are fun questions to ask a moral realist. We ought to do it because it is morally good … and it is morally good because we ought to do it, and … but so far I’ve never come across an actual answer.

    A society determines what it ought to do to survive, and derives a morality from it, that all individuals “ought” to obey (“mores”, social morality). However, to survive, or lessen pain, a given crazed, or, simply, distressed, individual may well decide that she/he needs to violate the social morality, and follow her/his own ways of doing things.

    Hence morality is relative between societies, and between individuals and society. However, given a long established society, morality is absolute.

    Roman Republican morality cracked around 150 BCE, due to Roman globalocracy (which enabled Roman plutocrats to come into existence, and ever grow in power). The collapse of that morality brought Augustus’ Principate in 27 BCE.

    However, the basic Roman Republican morality was embodied by Republican Roman law, whose basic framework was refurbished under Roman emperor Justinian (529 CE to 565 CE), and, transmitted by the Imperium Francorum, survives to this day as the basic legal framework of the present civilization.

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Patrice,

      So before the Romans no one had a moral sense or cultural moral codes? The biology underlying our moral sense and cultural moral norms whose violation deserved punishment predates the Romans by quite a bit. And there are many behaviors and attitudes, such as xenophobia, that can increase group survival but have nothing to do with morality.

  2. Pingback: What Is “Moral” To A Lion? | Patrice Ayme's Thoughts

  3. Mark Sloan

    Hi Coel,

    Interesting post on scientism. But I don’t fully understand your position.

    Traditional moral philosophers have proposed answers to questions such as “What is good?”, “What are my obligations?”, and “How should I live?” Some of their answers have provided useful guidance for fulfilling human needs and preferences. How do you see answers such as virtue ethics or philosophical Buddhism as being in the domain of objective science?

    On the other hand, objective answers to the question “What are the origins and function (the primary reason they exist) of our moral sense and cultural moral codes?” are fully in the domain of science. From our past conversations, I understand you roughly agree that behaviors advocated by cultural moral codes and motivated by the biology underlying our moral sense are elements of cooperation strategies that were selected for by the benefits of cooperation they produced.

    Perhaps you even agree that there is a subset of those cooperation strategies (the subset being cooperation strategies that exploit no one) that is the necessary minimum to enable cooperation to occur. That is, science can objectively answer the question “What behaviors are universally moral?” If science can tell us what behaviors are universally moral, then how can you justify the claim that morality is only subjective?

    By the way, “it is morally good” (referring to universally moral behaviors) means a behavior that is an element of cooperation strategies that exploit no one.

    And “what one ought or ought not to do” is a separate question from what is universally moral. People naturally confound “what is morally good” with “what one ought or ought not to do” due to the evolutionary history of our moral sense that misleadingly connects the two. What is universally moral is independent of the existence of biology. What one ought or ought not to do is both dependent on biology and may have no objective answer.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Traditional moral philosophers have proposed answers to questions such as “What is good?”, “What are my obligations?”, and “How should I live?” Some of their answers have provided useful guidance for fulfilling human needs and preferences. How do you see answers such as virtue ethics or philosophical Buddhism as being in the domain of objective science?

      If a question such as “How should I live?” means something like: “what would give me the greatest contentment and happiness”, then there is nothing in that question outside the domain of science. That, however, does not mean it is tractable or easily answered. There are many questions that are within the domain of science but that are too hard to give good answers (such as what will be the weather at my location on this exact day next year?).

      Now, traditional moral philosophers have attempted as-good-as-they-can answers to such questions. In order to do that, they observe and theorise about human nature and base their answers on experience of the world. That’s the same way that scientists arrive at answers. It’s not a completely independent “other way of knowing”.

      From our past conversations, I understand you roughly agree that behaviors advocated by cultural moral codes and motivated by the biology underlying our moral sense are elements of cooperation strategies that were selected for by the benefits of cooperation they produced.

      Yes.

      Perhaps you even agree that there is a subset of those cooperation strategies (the subset being cooperation strategies that exploit no one) that is the necessary minimum to enable cooperation to occur.

      Yes, agreed.

      That is, science can objectively answer the question “What behaviors are universally moral?”

      No, that does not follow, since the meaning of the word “moral” is not “enables cooperation”. It might be the case that things that are regarded as moral do indeed enable cooperation, and that might be why we have morals, but it is still not the case that the word “moral” means “enables cooperation”.

      If it did then your scheme would be entirely true. But no dictionary defines the word that way. You thus have to introduce an axiom making that equation, and that’s what the whole argument is about.

      By the way, “it is morally good” (referring to universally moral behaviors) means a behavior that is an element of cooperation strategies that exploit no one.

      Then why do no dictionaries or reference works on the matter give that as the meaning of “it is morally good”? Again, you’re introducing that statement that I’ve just quoted as an axiom. It is not the agreed meaning of the term.

  4. Patrice Ayme

    Hi Mark Sloan:
    I am sorry you deduced from what I said that there was no law before the Romans. Actually the Romans learned everything from the Greeks of Magna Grecia to the south, and the Etruscans to the north. In turn, the Etruscans had come from Syria, where they stayed for a while before moving on. Sumerian cities had law, 5,000 years before, and actually invented the bicameral political system we use today. 38 centuries ago, the Babylonians (who succeeded Sumer after its annihilation) evolved a legal system which the king Hammurabi imposed all around the empire. Greek civilization evolved from Crete, Egypt, Phoenicia, all of which were in close trading of goods and ideas with the rest of the Fertile Crescent, and all the way to the Indian subcontinent and Yemen.

    The task of civilized legislators was always to make the law as compatible with human ethology and the present ecology and technology. “Xenophobia” is part of human ethology, so is xenophilia. To always focus on aggression is a very human trait which has to be incorporated into the most appropriate morality. All human groups are endowed with the fear of strangers (xenophobia) to a more or less great extent. Domesticating xenophobia with the appropriate morality and balancing it with the kindness of strangers, a moral, and even civilizational, necessity.

    There is no absolute morality out there, independent of biology (Hawking and Al. have pointed this out when saying that if aliens ring the phone, we should not answer…) Not anymore that there are objective interpretations independent of biology (this last point would be extremely controversial, I just throw it in there, to answer the dichotomy of “objective” versus “subjective” which is often brandished!)

    Reply
  5. Dan Steeves

    The problem with scientism is that it has created short term benefits and very serious long term problems. For example, antibiotics have saved the lives of milllons but pathogens, or so called super-germs, have developed genetic resistence to antibiotics. That includes pneumonia and tuberculosis and many other killers. For the past 150 years or so over a trillion barrels of oil have been extracted from the earth’s crust. Oil has moved the world and brought many benefits. The down side is oil is a highly toxic substance and the prime driver of climate change which is now wrecking havoc on the earth from pole to pole. Not to mention the millions of barrels of oil spilled that have severely polluted the land, rivers and oceans. Another example is nuclear power. While providing cheap electrical power nuclear plants have had meltdowns like chernobyl and the nuclear plant damaged by a psunami in Japan. Plus the fact that the disposal of nuclear waste produced by atomic fission is a very serious problem. It’s just as the ancient hebrew prophet once stated under inspiration 26 centuries ago en Jeremiah 10:23 “…it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps.” And the inability to “direct his own steps” includes scientific technology and scientism.

    Reply
  6. Mark Sloan

    Hi Coel,

    Here are some common cultural definitions from Merriam Webster Definitions of moral
    1. of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior : ethical
    2. conforming to a standard of right behavior
    3. sanctioned by or operative on one’s conscience or ethical judgment e : capable of right and wrong action

    If true, my hypotheses will explain all these definitions (and virtually everything else we know about cultural morality). But note that the mindless process of evolution did not start out by telling our distant ancestors “Listen up, I am selecting for behaviors that enable cooperation. Let’s call those behaviors moral”. What mindless evolution did was equip our ancestors with a moral sense that motivated behaviors that increased cooperation even while our ancestors were essentially oblivious to the purpose of those behaviors and the emotions that motivated them.

    Our ancestors only knew that 1) in certain circumstances our moral sense made near instantaneous judgements of what people ought and ought not do, 2) these judgements came with a mysterious feeling of innate bindingness, 3) there was spontaneous motivation to punish those who violated these judgements of right and wrong, and 4) satisfaction and optimism in the cooperative company of family and friends. They had little indication these emotions and behaviors had anything to do with cooperation.

    Given our evolutionary history, how would we expect our ancestors to define moral? They might define it as 1) “what people ought and ought not do”, 2) “conforming to a standard of right behavior”, a cultural moral norm, or 3) ”sanctioned by or operative” either the mysterious bindingness feeling evolution provided or the very real advocacy and punishment of moral norms by the society.

    My hypotheses readily explain why these common definitions of morality are what they are. To me, the common definitions of moral are just more explained data supporting the hypotheses/ truth.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      But note that the mindless process of evolution did not start out by telling our distant ancestors “Listen up, I am selecting for behaviors that enable cooperation. Let’s call those behaviors moral”.

      Agreed. To illustrate where I disagree with you, let’s consider the very similar situation of aesthetic judgements.

      Evolution programmed us to enjoy eating, say, sweet fruit, and to be disgusted by, say, putrid meat. It did that because sweet fruit was nutritious and beneficial to our survival, whereas putrid meat would likely poison us.

      But, as you’ve just explained, evolution did not program us to reason about natural selection, it programmed us with simple heuristics, namely feelings. So if someone says “That’s delicious” or “that’s disgusting”, what do they mean? They are reporting their feelings. “That’s delicious” does not mean “that will aid my survival” (objectively true statement), it means “I like eating it” (reporting a subjective state). Similarly, “that’s disgusting” does not mean “that will likely harm my survival” (objectively true statement), it means “I dislike the thought of eating it” (reporting a subjective state).

      Now, those objective statements may very well be true but they are not the primary meaning of the phrases!.

      To see this, consider the modern situation where we have ready access to abundant food. A grossly overweight person may still opine “That’s delicious” about sweet, fat-filled food, even if they know full well that it will actively harm their survival. Similarly, a child might say “that’s disgusting” about a needed but bitter-tasting medicine, even if they know that the medicine will be beneficial to their health.

      So: for objectively true reasons to do with survival and prospering, evolution programmed us with aesthetic feelings. When we use aesthetic language we are reporting our feelings, our subjective likes and dislikes. The fact that there are objective reasons why we have those subjective likes and dislikes does not change that last sentence: “When we use aesthetic language we are reporting our feelings, our subjective likes and dislikes”.

      So let’s now turn to morality, which, as I see it, is really just a variant of aesthetics. Evolution will have co-opted the existing aesthetic mechanism, now giving us feelings about how we treat each other. The reason it did that is to facilitate and enable cooperation, and it did that by the simple heuristic of giving us *feelings* on the matter, rather than programming us to reason about selection strategies.

      Perhaps we might be in agreement in everything so far in this comment?

      From there: when we use moral language we are reporting our feelings, our subjective preferences and dislikes. The fact that there are objective reasons why we have those subjective likes and dislikes does not change the fact that moral language amounts to a report of our subjective likes and dislikes.

      Again, evolution did not program us to reason “if we do X then we will cooperate better and so our group will flourish”, it programmed us with the simple heuristic feelings “Like X “, and “Dislike not-X”.

      And if that is true, then moral language and moral declarations simply are declarations of our subjective preferences and emotional attitudes.

      Now, maybe you might still be largely in agreement with me, but it seems to me that you then go one step further. A step that I don’t want to make.

      You then consider that there is something wrong with accepting that morality is subjective in the way that I’ve just explained, so you reason: If we were to regard moral language as referring *not* to our emotional attitudes (which are subjective), but instead to the underlying evolutionary reasons why we have those attitudes (which are objective facts), *then* morality would be objective. I agree, *if* we did that, then morality would be objective.

      But, as I see it, that is an error for two reasons. First, there is nothing wrong with morality being subjective. In the same way there is nothing wrong with our aesthetic feelings being subjective. The fact that the love between a mother and child is an entirely subjective property of their brains does not make that love any less real or important.

      The second error, as I see it, is that it is simply not what moral language means. As we might perhaps agree, evolution programmed us such that moral language refers to our emotional attitudes, *not* to the underlying reasons why we have those attitudes. Your scheme tries to avoid that fact, for the totally unnecessary reason of trying to avoid the label “subjective” as applied to morality.

      Coming back to aesthetics, one would say to the child: “Yes, I know the medicine is disgusting but it’s good for you”. You would not try to re-write the language to insist that “delicious” means “good for you”, and so insist to the child: “no, actually, the medicine is delicious!”.

      Of course the whole distinction is not quite that clear cut, because knowledge of whether something is healthy or unhealthy can then influence our aesthetics, and similarly our moral attitudes are open to influences. But, it still seems to me that we need to keep clear the distinction between our aesthetic and moral attitudes (subjective), and the underlying reasons that we have those attitudes (objective).

  7. verbosestoic

    To avoid one huge post, I’m going to try to break this up into three comments referencing different issues. Hopefully that will work and not be too onerous.

    Anyway, first, I think that both sides of the divide are sometimes too proprietary, in that philosophers often assume that no one else does conceptual analysis and scientists often assume that philosophy doesn’t do empirical analysis. Both are false. As you point out, scientists do need to do conceptual analysis and the strictly theoretical divisions of science do that fairly exclusively, while philosophers use empirical analysis and science whenever they think it might actually work and help them with their problems. The clash between the two, I find, is greatly overstated.

    That being said, though, they ARE, in fact, interestingly distinct. Even when it comes to theoretical physics, the point of their models are to describe empirical reality. If, then, their theories are shown to not describe empirical reality very well, that is a flaw in the model — ergo, in their concept — and so the model has to be changed or abandoned. Ultimately, the purpose of those models is nothing more than to describe empirical reality, and so if they fail to do that they are not scientifically interesting.

    This is not true of the more conceptual fields, where even if their concepts don’t map nicely to empirical reality they might still be of great interest to their field, and certainly aren’t WRONG. For example, Euclidean geometry as one of its main postulates that parallel lines never cross, but if we discovered that in this reality parallel lines ALWAYS cross eventually, that would not prove Euclidean geometry wrong, or make it uninteresting mathematically. If we discovered that, say, modus ponens didn’t work reliably in this world, that would not invalidate logics that used it, it would just mean that we couldn’t use those logics reliably to judge the empirical world. If philosophy discovered that by the only reasonable concept of “morality” humans were incapable of it, that wouldn’t mean that they were wrong about what morality is. Conceptual fields are not bound by what happens to be the case in empirical reality, and they don’t judge the usefulness of their work by how well it works out for science.

    I find that you continually seem to denigrate those fields by reducing them to how useful they are to science. Most of them in most cases are perfectly willing to be of use to science, but refuse to have their worth reduced to how useful they are to the scientific enterprise.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi verbose,

      I largely agree with a lot of what you’ve said in this comment. Concentrating, though, on areas of disagreement:

      Ultimately, the purpose of [theoretical physics] models is nothing more than to describe empirical reality, and so if they fail to do that they are not scientifically interesting.

      Yes, though there is more to it than that. Theoretical physicists are also interested in the wider conceptual landscape, including that which is not physically instantiated in addition to what is instantiated. For example, when one develops models for, say, cosmology, one takes an interest in all the possible types of universes that there could have been — ones that are conceptually consistent, even if they are not the universe that we live in.

      Why? Well, just as in philosophy, understanding the wider conceptual landscape is interesting in its own right, and helps us understand the subset of that conceptual landscape that is instantiated. Thus, in this regard, science is not as different from philosophy and maths as is sometimes suggested.

      Conceptual fields are not bound by what happens to be the case in empirical reality, and they don’t judge the usefulness of their work by how well it works out for science.

      It is actually rare for a conceptual field to depart very far from the concepts that are useful in the real world. Most of the concepts either are applicable to the real world, or are closely related to such concepts.

      Taking your example, non-Euclidean geometry kept many of Euclid’s postulates and relaxed one of them. It produced a variation on the (then known) physical world. But again, scientists are *also* interested in that sort of conceptual analysis. It is not the case that they are narrowly focused on what is empirically instantiated. They really are interested in the wider concepts, and again one of the main reasons for that is that it helps with understanding the instantiated subset.

      Thus in practice there is very little difference here between theoretical physics and the “conceptual fields” of mathematics and philosophy. In practice, the latter fields don’t depart very far from what is relevant to physical reality, mostly because it gets uninteresting. In practice, I’m willing to bet, the ratio of time that people spend considering wider conceptual analysis versus considering directly relevant concepts is likely not that different in theoretical physics versus philosophy.

      I find that you continually seem to denigrate those fields by reducing them to how useful they are to science.

      I’m actually trying to do the opposite, trying to emphasize that many philosophers (Stephen Law is a good example) have much too narrow a view of what science is like. When philosophers argue “maths and philosophy is different from science because it is such-and-such”, I’m replying that, actually, science is like that also.

      Just for example, I recently gave a lecture on cosmology to undergrads, and spent the lecture considering ten different possible universes and how they behaved. Only one of the ten was how our universe was behaving. Why? Because considering our universe in that wider conceptual context produced a better understanding.

      That’s more or less that mathematicians and philosophers are doing. Yes, they explore the wider conceptual context, but in practice very little of maths and philosophy is totally irrelevant and uninteresting with regards the real world.

  8. verbosestoic

    Next, I find that your insistence that anything that could produce any interesting knowledge to ignore what specific attributes science adopted to make it so very good at what it does. I argue that there are three main ways or fields of knowledge: everyday reasoning, science and philosophy. These are all related and are not in conflict, but they have different focuses and presumptions that mean they work in different ways and are useful for different questions . Everyday reasoning is the basic, naive empiricism based on sensation and reflection that we all started with: see something, think about it a bit to see what beliefs are consistent with that sensation, and then believe that. What it never did, though, was go on from there to say that it has found a consistent belief or set of beliefs and now has to figure out how to verify that those beliefs are actually true. This is one of the things that science added that makes it far more accurate than everyday reasoning. On the flip side, philosophy makes no presumptions; every presumption, even that you had any kind of accurate sensation at all, is always up for grabs. Science presumes more things — like that empirical data is always relevant — which makes it easier for it to get off the ground, especially for claims that are indeed about empirical reality.

    But they all have their places. While everyday reasoning is less accurate, it’s also FAST, and so perfect for us to form the many, many beliefs that we form everyday (even including “I’m hungry right now”). And philosophy is good for claims that aren’t merely descriptive and that you can’t just look out at the world and read off with enough time and observations. These, then, all produce knowledge, and have their places. By lumping them all together, you either have to denigrate the ones that aren’t formal science, or accept the failings of the others because you can’t claim that the methods of “formal science” constitute what science actually does.

    Scientism, to me, has always pushed itself into one of those two conclusions, neither of which work out well for it.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi verbosestoic,

      Everyday reasoning is the basic, naive empiricism based on sensation and reflection that we all started with: see something, think about it a bit to see what beliefs are consistent with that sensation, and then believe that.

      I don’t really disagree with anything you say about “everyday reasoning”, except that I don’t see it as completely distinct and separate from science. Take the “model testing” element: early farmers, 10,000 years ago, for example, will have been continually trying things out, seeing what works, and updating their beliefs as a consequence. This is proto-scientific. It is indeed vastly less refined and developed than science today, but at root it is the same thing. It is not a distinct “other way of knowing”.

      While everyday reasoning is less accurate, it’s also FAST, and so perfect for us to form the many, many beliefs that we form everyday …

      Agreed, it’s a quick and easy (but less good) version of the way we learn things. Science is a more refined and sophisticated version, and thus a much slower and harder-to-do version of the same thing.

      On the flip side, philosophy makes no presumptions; every presumption, even that you had any kind of accurate sensation at all, is always up for grabs.

      But you can never put everything up for grabs all at once, even in philosophy. You can only test and replace parts of a worldview, while using the rest of the worldview to do that. So it’s not really true that philosophy makes no presumptions, it operates much like science does, in a Quinean-web iteration.

      And philosophy is good for claims that aren’t merely descriptive and that you can’t just look out at the world and read off with enough time and observations.

      Sure, but so is science! Most of science is not merely a matter of reporting observations; it is just as much about conceptualising about them. Very few things in science are raw observations, all of them are “theory laden”, and that means that all of them are just as much about concepts. Further, many statements in science then derive straight from the concepts, not directly from observations.

  9. verbosestoic

    So, finally, on morality. I recently wrote and am writing a discussion on objective morality on my blog, but I do think your conception leaves morality meaningless.

    Science can not inform us as to what is objectively morally right or wrong because there is no such thing as objective moral right, and the quest for it is fundamentally misconceived. Morals are value judgements that people make about how people treat each other. “It is moral” means “I approve” and “It is immoral” means “I disapprove”.

    While of course I’ve read your arguments — and obviously have not been convinced — what I want to ask here is what methods do you use or propose to use to demonstrate this? It’s not empirical because a) just because most people agreed with you doesn’t mean they’re right that there is no such thing as objective morality and b) you already concede in the rest of the post that most people do NOT consider morality to be the same sort of thing as “It’s delicious!”. So you’re going to need some kind of non-empirical and purely conceptual way to argue for that, and that would seem to move it out of the realm of, at least, formal science, and into the realm commonly called “philosophy”. So, at a minimum, science is not going to be able to tell us whether morality is objective or not without you simply taking “philosophy” and calling it “science”, which would get Law at least part-way to what he wants.

    To illustrate this, suppose someone exclaims, on tasting a dish: “That is delicious!”. Superficially this purports to be a statement about an objective property of the dish (that it is delicious), but of course it really means: “I like it”.

    The thing is, to say that it is delicious is NOT to say “I like it”. It is to say that you are having a specific subjective experience, that of a pleasant taste. What makes that subjective is that we while it is an objective fact that you are having that experience, that fact is itself subjective: as long as you are having that experience, you can’t be WRONG to say that the thing is delicious; delicious really only means “delicious to you”. Or, to put it better, the statement “That dish is delicious is true” only holds that truth value relative to you and you alone.

    The same is not normally the case for morality. We clearly don’t want to say that the statement “Slavery is morally wrong” is only true if a specific person BELIEVES that it is morally wrong, but that is, in fact, what making morality subjective in the same way as “That dish is delicious” actually does. That’s why it makes it meaningless; it isn’t LITERALLY meaningless (because it is a valid concept of morality) but it makes it, I suppose, pointless. If someone insists that slavery is not morally wrong and want to in fact purchase a slave, if morality is subjective and/or relative you cannot use “No, you’re wrong, slavery is indeed morally wrong” as an argument against them, because all you’d be saying is that slavery is morally wrong TO YOU; that means nothing to THEM. You’d have to appeal to pragmatics — you’ll get arrested, it’s too much work to keep a slave, people won’t like you if you keep slaves — to get them to change their mind. You considering it morally wrong, then, has no impact unless everyone else agrees, and as soon as someone disagrees all talk of what is really moral has to be dropped if your view that morality is subjective is correct. If we have to drop discussing it right when it should matter, then it’s not really useful or meaningful.

    Note that for “It’s delicious” we’d have the same problem, except that all I ever want to do there is express that inner subjective experience. I feel no need for anyone else to agree. That is not true of how we think of morality.

    If “it is morally good” doesn’t mean “I approve of it” then what does it mean? When Stephen Law says that science cannot tell us “what one ought or ought not to do”, what does the phrase “ought to do”, as used there, actually mean? These are fun questions to ask a moral realist. We ought to do it because it is morally good … and it is morally good because we ought to do it, and … but so far I’ve never come across an actual answer.

    “Ought to do” means what we should do to be or to approach a conceptual ideal. For circles, for example, we know what it means for something to be a better or worse ideal circle, even if we can never manage to make it there. So, if we value and want to become a better or an ideal moral agent, we should act in a moral manner. If we want to become a more practical agent, we should act in a practical manner. What those precisely mean are up for debate — I can gives lots of ways to be more moral by the objective morality that I think is true, but that needs to be settled before that can be really outlined — but, in general that’s how oughts work, That you can’t find a perfect circle in reality does not impact what it means to be a perfect circle, and in the same way what most people think is moral or that people disagree about it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a concept of morality that really does work and is objective.

    I also think you run into the circular issue you reference here by relating morality to goals. Let me say this: if I say that I want to be a proper or perfect moral agent more than anything, what can your view do to help me do that? This is more directly a problem for Richard Carrier’s view — he ends up arguing that morality is determined by what you want most, which means that if you want to be moral most of all then you ought to act to achieve your greatest want, which is to be moral, which is to achieve your greatest want, etc — but in your case at a minimum relating it to goals is no help at all. You don’t leave yourself a way to determine what morality is beyond what a person naturally thinks is moral, and if they elevate morality itself there is nothing you can use to tell them that they can improve. And note that you can’t say that we have the same problem for delicious, as we can indeed talk about what it means for someone to experience that subjective feeling and work towards even better experiencing it. We can tell, for example, Data from Star Trek what it means to have the subjective experience of “delicious” so he can progress towards that.

    If I say that I want to toss aside all my preconceptions about morality and build myself, from the ground up, into what is most “moral”, what would you suggest I do? Because anyone with a view of objective morality can tell you that, rather easily.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi verbosestoic,

      I recently wrote and am writing a discussion on objective morality on my blog, …

      I look forward to it.

      So you’re going to need some kind of non-empirical and purely conceptual way to argue [that there is no such thing as objective morality]

      I’ll go for a mixture of empirical and conceptual arguments (= science! 🙂 ).

      First, let’s ask a general question: how does science arrive at the non-existence of, say, a dualistic soul, or elan vital, or faeries? It is primarily a matter of: (1) we can explain everything there is to explain without them (= we produce an empirically adequate account that does not include them); and: (2) we then excise them with Occam’s razor. There’s also: (3) they create conceptual difficulties, thus making the overall model worse, and thus we excise them to improve the model.

      It’s the same with the idea of objective morality. It is not needed; nothing empirical points to it; further, it just gives rise to conceptual difficulties that make models worse. Explanations of morality just work so much better under emotivism; vast swathes of philosophical conundrums simply evaporate!

      Indeed, as I see it, human moral feelings are best explained along the lines originated by Darwin in Descent of Man, and thus the topic of meta-ethics is best approached from the scientific perspective rather than the philosophical one.

      [If you’re going to counter that the above reasoning is not purely empirical but also involves philosophical aspects then, yes, I agree, but then I don’t see those as completely distinct 🙂 ]

      The thing is, to say that it is delicious is NOT to say “I like it”. It is to say that you are having a specific subjective experience, that of a pleasant taste.

      But that subjective experience is surely a pleasurable one, and surely it is the pleasure of the experience that is being reported in the word “delicious”. (“Pleasant” = “giving a sense of happy satisfaction or enjoyment”.)

      delicious really only means “delicious to you”.

      Agreed. In the same way that my translation of “That is delicious!” as meaning “I like it” is a declaration by the speaker and pertains to them.

      Or, to put it better, the statement “That dish is delicious is true” only holds that truth value relative to you and you alone.

      Or, as I would say it: “That is delicious!” is not truth apt and has no truth value. “Susan finds the dish delicious” does have a truth value.

      We clearly don’t want to say that the statement “Slavery is morally wrong” is only true if a specific person BELIEVES that it is morally wrong, but that is, in fact, what making morality subjective in the same way as “That dish is delicious” actually does.

      No! That’s a common misconception about subjective morality but it is not the case. Subjective morality does not entail that the phrase “Slavery is morally wrong” “is only true if a specific person BELIEVES that it is morally wrong”, it is saying that the statement: “Slavery is morally wrong” is not truth apt, and has no truth value.

      “Slavery is morally wrong” would mean quite literally, “I dislike and abhor slavery”. Thus the phrase “Susan considers slavery to be morally wrong” has a truth value (it is true that Susan does think that), in the same way that “Susan finds it delicious” has a truth value (she does!) but the statement “Slavery is morally wrong” has no truth value any more than “It is delicious” has a truth value.

      Essentially, whether aesthetic or moral, such language is a report of feelings and values, and thus such statements only have truth values when referred to the person doing the valuing. They quite literally cannot be true or false in the abstract.

      If someone insists that slavery is not morally wrong and want to in fact purchase a slave, if morality is subjective and/or relative you cannot use “No, you’re wrong, slavery is indeed morally wrong” as an argument against them, …

      Agreed, you can’t!

      because all you’d be saying is that slavery is morally wrong TO YOU …

      Or, in other words, that I deprecate and deplore it.

      But what’s your argument here? Is it: I *want* to be able to appeal to some absolute standard of morality, therefore there *must be* an absolute standard of morality, otherwise I would not be able to appeal to it?

      [Well I’d like a perpetaul motion machine to solve the energy crisis, but me wanting one does not mean that I can have any such thing!]

      You are entirely right, subjective morality does indeed mean that you cannot solve a moral dispute by appealing to an objective standard. But I’m arguing for subjective morality as something that is *true*, not because I think it’s useful!

      You’re right, my scheme is not useful in the way you want it to be, but does that mean it cannot be true? People *wanting* there to be an objective morality, to be useful in exactly the way you describe, is why people think there must be such a thing, but that’s a non sequitur.

      So, if we value and want to become a better or an ideal moral agent, we should act in a moral manner.

      OK, agreed, but that depends on us having already agreed the moral ideal that we should aim for. And that can only be done subjectively, from our values.

      but, in general that’s how oughts work,…

      Agreed. The oughts you’ve pointed to are instrumental oughts, that follow once we’ve agreed on the aim or standard that we want to pursue. But those only follow once we have that aim or standard. (And I’m asserting that there is no “moral ideal” in the abstract, and that such a notion is misconceived.)

      That you can’t find a perfect circle in reality does not impact what it means to be a perfect circle,…

      But there we can give a clear mathematical definition of the standard we are comparing to. But whence the objective moral standard? Moral standards can only come from the values and advocacy of a person.

      Let me say this: if I say that I want to be a proper or perfect moral agent more than anything, what can your view do to help me do that?

      It can help you with that by explaining that there is no such thing as a “perfect moral agent” in the abstract. Moral values derive from the person doing the valuing.

      but in your case at a minimum relating it to goals is no help at all.

      It is a help! It is helpful in saying that the entire quest is misconceived and cannot be attained. It is akin to someone trying to dissect animals in order to find a soul or elan vital; the only helpful thing to say to them is that they will never find either, and that the quest derives from them thinking about things in the wrong way.

      You don’t leave yourself a way to determine what morality is beyond what a person naturally thinks is moral, …

      Exactly. Indeed I’m going way further than that, I’m saying that the whole notion of “what is moral” in the abstract is misconceived and that there is no such thing.

      People’s feelings and values really is all there is. You are right, my scheme will never help you find anything beyond that. It will, though, explain why you will never find anything beyond that and why searching for such a thing is a misconceived quest.

      If I say that I want to toss aside all my preconceptions about morality and build myself, from the ground up, into what is most “moral”, what would you suggest I do?

      I would suggest that you consider what the concept “most moral” actually means, in the abstract, and then proceed to the realisation that there is no such thing for it to mean.

      Because anyone with a view of objective morality can tell you that, rather easily.

      I bet they can’t! They can only report what values *they* aspire to! Anything they said would be their subjective preference.

      And I’m also betting that they could not even explain what an objective moral standard would even mean.

  10. Mark Sloan

    Hi Cole,

    We agree moral judgments, like esthetic judgements, are commonly subjective and can be viewed as expressing our feelings. The diversity, contradictions, and bizarreness of moral judgments in present and past societies are consistent with moral judgments being commonly subjective.

    But the existence of commonly subjective moral judgements does not contradict the claim that universally moral behaviors objectively exist. Specifically, that “strategies that overcome the cooperation/exploitation dilemma without exploiting anyone are objectively moral” and the subset of moral judgments consistent with this principle are objectively, not subjectively, moral.

    If what is universally moral is innate to our physical reality, then it exists independently of feelings. Consider a theoretical artificial intelligence without feelings which is programmed to act consistently with the universally moral principle. This AI could behave in an objectively moral manner with no feelings involved at all.

    Second, consider the origins of the idea that moral judgments are just about our feelings. This “feelings” concept of morality originated as the fallback position when no moral system (such as Utilitarianism or Kantianism) could be shown to be universally moral. Fine. Now we know there is an ultimate source of universally moral behavior beyond human biology and culture. We now know that it is not true that moral judgements are just about feelings. A subset of moral judgements has an objective, universally moral source in our physical reality.

    We can now correct some of our predecessors’ error in thinking that that moral judgments are only about feelings.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      We always reach an impasse where we simply disagree about what “moral” language means.

      Specifically, that “strategies that overcome the cooperation/exploitation dilemma without exploiting anyone are objectively moral” and the subset of moral judgments consistent with this principle are objectively, not subjectively, moral.

      But, again, what do you mean by “objectively moral”? As best I can make out, the above is your *definition* of what “moral” means, thus “moral” is defined to be: “strategies that promote cooperation” (or a longer version of that phrase).

      The problem is that there is no general agreement that that is what word means. If I consult the Oxford English Dictionary or anything similar that is not how the word “moral” is defined. Yes, your whole scheme makes sense under your definition, but you are using the word very differently from its general use.

      Your scheme (as I see it) amounts to:

      1) Define “moral” strategies as meaning “strategies that promote cooperation”.

      2) From there “strategies that promote cooperation” are thus “moral” (which follows tautologically from the previous statement).

      3) Since there are objective facts about which strategies promote cooperation, your scheme thus produces objective morality.

      Given (1) I agree that (2) and (3) follow. But I do not accept that (1) is the meaning of the word is at is commonly used.

  11. Mark Sloan

    Hi Cole,

    Your claim that I am ‘defining’ “moral” strategies as meaning “strategies that promote cooperation” is false.

    Science does not work that way. One starts with a natural phenomena, for example “behaviors advocated by past and present moral codes and motivated by our moral sense”, and seeks the hypothesis that best explains it and meets other relevant criteria for scientific truth.

    What you are calling a “definition” is, as perhaps you agree, a confirmed hypothesis based on its explanatory power for “behaviors advocated by past and present moral codes and motivated by our moral sense”.

    The closest the science of morality comes to “defining” anything is in specifying the data set to be explained. That data set is “everything we know about behaviors advocated by past and present moral codes and motivated by our moral sense”. Nowhere in that data set ‘definition’ of what is to be explained is there anything specifically about cooperation.

    That these behaviors are elements of cooperation strategies is a conclusion from the science based on an immense volume of work over 45 years or so. That “behaviors advocated by past and present moral codes and motivated by our moral sense” are elements of cooperation strategies is in no way a definition.

    Are you arguing I lack adequate justification for describing behaviors advocated by past and present moral codes and motivated by our moral sense as (descriptively) moral?

    Also, is your position on the subjectivity of morality perhaps dependent on a definition of morality similar to “what we feel is right and wrong”? What is your justification for that definition?

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      My problem is that, if you are *not* defining “moral” in such a way that the following sentence is tautological, then I don’t know how you are defining it or what you mean by the sentence:

      Specifically, that “strategies that overcome the cooperation/exploitation dilemma without exploiting anyone are objectively moral” and the subset of moral judgments consistent with this principle are objectively, not subjectively, moral.

      What does “… are moral” mean as used in that sentence? That question is what the whole discussion is about, and I’m still not at all clear on what you think “… are moral” means.

      My suggestion that you think “X is moral” means “X promotes cooperation” (or something along those lines) was my best attempt at interpreting your stance, but apologies if that is wrong.

      The closest the science of morality comes to “defining” anything is in specifying the data set to be explained. That data set is “everything we know about behaviors advocated by past and present moral codes and motivated by our moral sense”.

      OK, so you are using the term “moral” descriptively for “behaviors advocated by past and present moral codes and motivated by our moral sense”? OK, let’s go with that. There is the issue that it defines “moral” in terms of a sentence that also includes the word “moral”, but we can probably agree on a descriptive account of the sets of ideas that humans have regarded as “moral codes”.

      But, all of those moral codes have come from human advocacy, from human preferences and feelings. Therefore, by the definition of the term, those moral codes are subjective (= originate from human values). If all human brains were zapped out of existence, there would then be no such moral codes.

      Now, from there, it is entirely true that there are objective factual reasons why humans have those particular feelings and values, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the moral codes, since they derive from human feelings and values, are subjective.

      Are you arguing I lack adequate justification for describing behaviors advocated by past and present moral codes and motivated by our moral sense as (descriptively) moral?

      I’m arguing that I don’t know what you mean by such labelling! If by “are moral” you mean “are the sorts of things in human moral codes” and “are motivated by our moral sense”, then that claim becomes tautologically true. If you mean something else by it, then I’m not at all sure what.

      Also, is your position on the subjectivity of morality perhaps dependent on a definition of morality similar to “what we feel is right and wrong”? What is your justification for that definition?

      No, I’m not using any such definition. I’m saying there *is* no such definition because there is no such thing as what is objectively “moral”. Moral exclamations are human value judgements, and thus there can be no abstract statements about what is or is not “moral”, all there can be are human declarations of what they value or what they deprecate.

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