Sunday, July 27, 2008

Doing Without "Facts 'vs' Values"

In the discussion under Intelligent Design and Evolution, Kirby and Olorin have been going back on forth on the relation between science and ethics.

The proof of the pudding of the sort of pluralism I've inherited and which I'm developing here and elsewhere is in the eating, esp. when it comes to these sorts of issues. Here, I want to contrast pluralism with two bad alternatives.

The first option, and which is in many respects the dominant discourse of academic philosophy and the academy generally, is a version of "scientism." This much-abused term will stand in, here, for the notion that scientific methods are the only legitimate processes whereby objective knowledge (which goes beyond ordinary perceptual consciousness) can be acquired. (I'm not delighted with this definition and may need to revise it subsequently.) On this view, "values" pose a number of interrelated problems. One problem is that when scientific theories are taken as having a monopoly on objective knowledge, values may become seen as "subjective." Apart from the considerable ethical and political problems this causes, it also arouses the philosophical problem of how to fit "values" into a world of "facts." In this case, the relation between science and ethics can be seen as arbitrary, science can be regarded as "value-neutral," and countless other difficulties arise like the heads of the Hydra.

The second option, which stands in a dialectical relation to the first, is to give ethics a metaphysical foundation (see note (1) below). On this view -- which, I must admit, I lack any real intuitive feeling for -- values cannot be merely subjective or conventional, but they also cannot be grounded in the sort of knowledge that science yields (but see note (2) below). Thus values cannot be "natural" but must instead have some sort of transcendent foundation. Alternatively: when the very idea of a transcendent foundation ceases to be rationally compelling and emotionally motivating -- i.e. the moment of "the death of God" -- then the abyss of nihilism threatens to yank out the foundation of civilization from under our very feet. There is something tiring and boring about how this argument then proceeds -- as if on cue, the exhibits are presented -- Exhibit 1: Nazism; Exhibit 2: Stalinism; Exhibit 3: terrorism.

The alternative I wish to explore takes its cue from a remark by John Dewey: "But values are as unstable as the forms of clouds" (Experience and Nature, excerpts available as PDF here). The forms of clouds! Are they not real? To what sort of reductive, scientistic physicalism must one be beholden in order to insist that clouds are not real (are not "really real")? If clouds are not real, I want to say, then nothing can count as "real". And so too are values -- they are as real as anything other aspect of our lived experience as a certain kind of animal -- the sort of animal that engages with its world through a plurality of discursive social practices.

(1) The dialectic, as I see it, can be seen roughly as if each viewpoint is a reaction-formation to the other. Thus, the Greek atomists reacted against ancient Greek religion and made possible the Sophists; Plato and Aristotle reacted against the Sophists; early modern philosophers reacted against Scholasticism; the Romantics reacted against the Enlightenment; religious fundamentalists reacted against 'modernity'. The "culture wars" have been with us for a long, long time!)

(2) Off the top of my head, I can think of two exceptions in the history of philosophy -- Aristotle and Spinoza -- who hold that ethics is grounded in the metaphysical structure of reality and that science provides insight into this structure. But Aristotle is a tricky case, since "science" does not mean for us post-Baconians what it mean to Aristotle or the Scholastics.


Anonymous said...

Although I ultimately disagree with your conclusions, I find your approach to be refreshing. You seem to be a great deal more objective in your thought processes than many atheists.

Carl Sachs said...

Well, that's about the best praise I can hope for! Thank you!

Olorin said...

“John Dewey: ‘But values are as unstable as the forms of clouds".... The forms of clouds! Are they not real?”

Dewey didn’t say that clouds are not real; he said their shapes are variable. That’s a BIG difference. Let me relate an experience with clouds as an introduction. My son and I once strayed into a cloud, and neither of us is IFR qualified. But one thing we both know, although I had not before actually experienced it. When you turn in a cloud, your ears tell you that your head is turning, and your butt gets pushed downward by centrifugal force. However, after a while, the ears turn off, and you get the almost irresistible gut feeling that you are climbing in a straight line. So you push the wheel forward, and end up auguring into the ground. The answer is: TRUST YOUR INSTRUMENTS, DON’T TRUST YOUR SENSES.

In IFR conditions, then, objective data is very much better than subjective feelings. But how subjective are values and moral codes? I disagree with my pastor[1] about the provenance of morality. He maintains that, without religion, we would all sink into moral depravity. As is my wont, I argue that science will ultimately explicate morality. For example, experiments have shown that people[2] have about the same reactions to moral situations, whether they are religious, agnostic, or atheist.[3] Other experiments have revealed two different moral senses, one subconscious and the other operating consciously.[4] Moral codes are not limited to humans. Even many bacteria have primitive ethics vis-a-vis each other.[5] Recent studies in computational economics have shown behavior that seems strange from the point of view of what one might consider to be simple Darwinian self-preservation. People will forfeit a reward in order to punish a group member who flouts the rules, or who makes niggardly offers in exchanges, for example.

The details of moral codes are cultural, just as overt languages differ within the framework of allowable grammars.[6] And the details of different moral codes undoubtedly serve other purposes, such as group cohesion and facilitating social intercourse. But I would deny that religion is necessary to morals, and would give a place to objective scientific knowledge as a basis for morals. The value of this approach[7] is, I think, to recognize when a particular value is subjective rather than universal. I don’t wish to destroy or even undermine religion; I consider religion a good vehicle for implementing ethics and morals.[8] In America, we prize freedom and diversity, but we must have certain rules in order to attain those goals. I see a role of science in ascertaining what kinds of moral rules are necessary and basic, and which are not.[9]

This screed is probably not what you had in mind for the subject of the discussion. But I would hope that it serves to keep certain basic matters separate—for example, objectivity and subjectivity in ethics.

[1] Both Kirby and I are, as it turns out, “surreal Lutherans.”

[2] Or at least Psych 101 students coerced into lab-rat duty.

[3] I’ll make an exception for sociopaths. But they seem to have measurable brain malfunctions. Cf. Phineas Gage, who lost his moral sense after an iron rod drove through his skull, even though other faculties were unimpaired.

[4] The difference was revealed in that certain moral decisions always took longer than others, because the two faculties were in conflict. Marc Hauser (Moral Minds, Ecco 2006) compares them to an innate grammar, upon which different cultures can build numerous—although not all imaginable—languages.

[5] The most common algorithm is “positive tit-for-tat.” Bacteria that form biofilms exhibit altruism; some cells will sacrifice themselves to a predator to preserve the group.

[6] Am I a Chomskian? You bet.

[7] That is, besides the goal of obviating metaphysics and philosophy :-)

[8] And I’m still a Lutheran? Well, if God can evolve human bodies, why should He have to infuse souls by some magic process? Why not evolve mental functions such as morals also? (And, at the same time, leave us free to figure out our own details.) We are obsessed with characterizing God as merely some kind of magician.

[9] I used to be all for ecumenism, but have changed my mind. I think it’s beneficial that Christian denominations differ in practices and in at least some beliefs. Some people might fit in better with the structured organization of the Roman Catholic Church, others might be drawn to charismatic groups that speak in tongues, and so forth. (My own entry point is music—nothing else gives me a “feeling of the numinous in the presence of the wholly other” that music does.