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March 13, 2006

Comments

hilzoy,

I'm pressed for time (CMS has been throwing one special file after another at the HMOs, to verify membership rosters and low income statuses, so we have to scramble to keep up), but briefly:

Yes, that conclusion does seem to be logically necessary. However, as I said above, it doesn't really seem to be a "moral claim", as I understand it -- it seems almost tautological. If you want to live what you consider to be a moral life, or course you have to make moral choices; but I think of a moral claim as something that helps us figure out what to choose. It's like saying that if you want to play Monopoly, you have to get out the board, set up the equipment, and follow the rules as you understand them. That doesn't help you decide whether a person who lands on Free Parking should collect a pot of money or not.

By the way, re this:

we've moved from needing a consensus about ethics as a whole

That was never my position -- I've always agreed that once you have consensus on a moral framework, you can engage in moral reasoning and speak of moral truths within that framework.

ken: the fun part of the argument was always supposed to be that the conclusion was actually substantive. There are certain sorts of people (and which, exactly, they are, I don't say, but I do say enough to make it clear which empirical investigations would answer the question) who do not, in fact, make such choices in difficult situations; we need to develop those character traits that will allow us to do so. And if I'm right about the Milgram experiment, these are traits that lots of people in fact lack.That means that lots of people ought to try to change, if the argument works.

You can think of this as not deciding which moral theory is correct, or you can think of it as establishing one piece of the correct moral theory: moral theory defining itself from within, so to speak. I go with the latter.

Quibble: I don't think that my first premiss is 'logically necessary' -- its necessity doesn't (I think) come from logic, but from necessary features of agency.

KenB: "I've always agreed that once you have consensus on a moral framework, you can engage in moral reasoning and speak of moral truths within that framework."

O.k., see, but the fundamental question here is: why is consensus relevant at all here? Don't feel bad: no one ever has an answer to this question.

Think about it this way:
Relativists often say things like: 'you can't (mumble mumble mumble) morality without consensus.' [(mumble mumble mumbel) = something vague gets said there.) Now, that suggests but does not entail that you CAN (mumble mumble mumble) WITH consensus. But for any interesting value of (mumble mumble mumble), this isn't true. Mere consensus PER SE can't justify anything.

The relativist's suggestion is that we should argue like this:

(1) We can't justify morality without consensus
--------------------------------------
(2) We can justify morality with consensus

But that's invalid. The right way to reason here is like so:

(1) Mere consensus has no justificatory force.
----------------------------------------
(2) Either morality can be justified in some non-consensus-based way or it cannot be justified.

If there are good moral reasons (roughly: valid moral arguments), then those reasons are good (arguments are valid) no matter how many people see that. If there are no such reasons/arguments, then adding lots of people to the picture won't change that.

That's not something peculiar to morality: that's something general and well-known about reasons and validity.

Relativists often make the mistake of thinking that they're being especially hard-headed or demanding about moral proof...but, in fact, if we distill out the core of their position, they are in danger of being far too lax about what counts as proof and/or truth. They seem to be saying that believing so makes it so...or at least that believing so by many people makes it so. Oh, if only that were true, moral theory would be easy. There's undoubtedly more consensus about the wrongness of murder than there is about, e.g., the shape of the Earth. Not to mention e.g. evolution.

Now, KenB didn't come out and say any of that stuff, but...well, you could make this sound nasty if you wanted to, but believe me, I don't mean it that way: relativists usually don't say anything clear enough to refute. They rarely come right out and say "thinking so makes it so," but the things they DO say consistently point in that direction. (Seem my fascinatin' papers on this fascinatin' topic...)

Anyway, what KenB actually said was:

"...once you have consensus on a moral framework, you can engage in moral reasoning and speak of moral truths within that framework."

But:

(A) If it's possible to engage in moral reasoning at all, then it's possible to do so whether or not there's agreement on a "framework."

(B) It's ALWAYS possible, of course, to *speak* of moral truths (that is, it's possible whethere there ARE any or not). So *that*'s possible with or without consensus.

but

(C) The existence of a consensus will have no effect on whether there ARE such truths. Everybody agreeing that sneezing is wrong won't MAKE it wrong. Again, consensus is irrelevant to moral truth.

So one of the things this all really comes down to is: does KenB really want to reject (C)?

If the answer's 'no', then I don't see how we're disagreeing. If the answer's 'yes', then he has to defend this incredible property that moral truth is supposed to have--popping in and out of existence on the basis of consensus. This position, again, makes morality very, very easy to justify...far too easy for it to be right!


A) If it's possible to engage in moral reasoning at all, then it's possible to do so whether or not there's agreement on a "framework."

This sounds a wee bit like something I said upthread: that if you've got a moral conclusion that follows logically from underlying premises, the validity of that conclusion is independent of how much agreement it gets from others. I'm not sure if absence of contradiction guarantees "truth" in the wonderful world of morality, but I'd think you'd need that as a condition if you were an absolutist.

If on the other hand you've got a moral conclusion that's built largely (or even a little bit) on irrational arguments, then you're going to need people to agree with you.

I tend to take a dim view of moral relativism (when I take any view of it at all), because it just lets you declare behaviors as moral based on what people thought as acceptable at the time.

And now I'm way past being way over my head.

hilzoy, I guess I tend to go with the former, but I will grant that it does demonstrate that there are certain statements about morality that are not based on mere consensus but are inherent to the concept.

Winston, I'm sorry that you're not understanding my arguments. Who knows where the fault lies, but there doesn't seem to be much point in continuing the discussion.

Slart, as long as the conclusion follows from the premises, the conclusion doesn't require agreement, but the premises do. Or if the premises are in turn conclusions from other premises, then those premises require agreement. You see where I'm going with this. If A->B and B->C and C->D, that means that as long as you accept A, you have to accept D, and anyone who accepts A but asserts !D is in the wrong. But if you don't accept A, you're not obligated to accept D.

KenB,
Sadly I guess that's right.

One last little thing about your reply to Slart:

This argument is the generic regress of reasons argument that afflicts every scrap of putative knowledge we know of. Without a regress-stopper, we never get justification (knowledge, whatever). This problem afflicts non-moral beliefs just as much as it affects moral beliefs. It's arguments like this that prompted me to point out upthread that many arguments for moral skepticism actually entail global skepticism (i.e. skepticism about everything, including empirical science).

It's a repeating pattern...take almost any argument you like against moral knowledge and the same argument vexes all knowledge: disagreement, fallibility, lack of certainty, regress...whatever.

O.k. I'm shutting up now.

Hilzoy: I note in passing that Mr Kleiman now thinks you an "accredited expert"; I wonder what happened to having you thrown in prison?

How can he be wrong? He's reality-based. Just ask him.

In this whole loooooong conversation, there's only one statement I think hits the nail on the head. Russell, you win:

Morality exists in relationships between persons. A moral relationship is one in which each party recognizes that the other is a person just as they are, and acts accordingly.

In other words, the Golden Rule. And there's also that bit someone said about "loving the other person the way you love yourself".

This is why I disagree with hilzoy's Evil Post -- I think the consequence of using "evil" to refer to persons (instead of strictly confining it to actions) is that reduces your feeling that the other person is a person in the same way you are.

This IMHO is why conservatives think they have a lock on moral values: because they're willing to call some people "evil". You'll also notice that they're willing to call people (e.g. terrorists, serial killers, liberals) "animals" (of various phyla) and "inhuman", too: that is to say, "not people, not like me". And guess what, I think doing this is evil.

Why do they do it, then? Because it is easy. No other person is just like me, so imagining another's personhood always takes work. The more different that person is from me, the more work. If I define large groups as "not really people", then I can forego the work of imagining what they're like, and life becomes simpler and easier.

I don't think susabelle's students are reluctant to call anything "evil" because they lack a moral sense. I think they've been taught not to call even actions evil because people -- and I'll even say especially conservatives -- are so extremely ready to jump from "evil action" to "must have been done by an evil person". The students know that calling a person "evil" is an evil thing to do, but they've never been taught the tools for keeping their judgement of the morality of an action from evaluating whether the actor deserves being treated as a person.

Hey Doctor Science -

Thanks for your response to my post. I appreciate your comments.

Oddly, perhaps, I'm not uncomfortable with considering some people as being evil. That is, I think that evil people exist.

I also think your comment about referring to people, even evil people, as being inhuman or subhuman being wrong is right on.

As I see it, the potential for both good and evil is present in all of us. So, while I recognize that there are evil people, it's hard for me see myself as being superior to them. Given the right circumstances, there go I. If anything, it's cause for humility, and gratitude for whatever circumstances kept me from that path.

Thanks -

Russell:

I'm not sure what you mean by an "evil person". I not only see the capacity for both good and evil actions in all people, I also see that each individual's actions are a mix of both. When people say things like "terrorists are evil" it always, in my observation, goes along with "so we don't have to try to understand them, we just need to wipe them out".

Basically, I think that in common parlance an "evil person" is one who is evil all the way through, who does bad things for bad motives, not like the understandable, muddled or momentary motives (I was angry, I was hurt) *I* have for my evil actions. If you're using "evil person" to mean something more complex or forgivable, common parlance will misunderstand you.

Bill Hooker:

In the first post you linked, Mr. Kleiman says, "Note that I'm philosophizing without a license, while Hilzoy is an accredited expert." No mention of ethics, just philosophizing.

In the second post, he is talking about bioethics in particular, not ethics or morality in general. I don't know whether he is justified in his animus toward that field, but I was not aware that Hilzoy had identified herself as a bioethicist.

Do these count as facts, Slartibartfast?

Dr. Science writes:

"This is why I disagree with hilzoy's Evil Post -- I think the consequence of using "evil" to refer to persons (instead of strictly confining it to actions) is that reduces your feeling that the other person is a person in the same way you are."

Just want to point out that even if we were to grant that the above is true (which, incidentally, I don't think we should), it wouldn't entail that there are no evil people. Rather it would only suggest that we shouldn't admit or say that evil people are evil.

NOW I'm shutting up.

Winston Smith wrote:

Rather it would only suggest that we shouldn't admit or say that evil people are evil.

You underestimate the moral force of my statement.

I'm not saying just that we shouldn't admit that there are evil people. I'm saying that the statement, "Some people are just evil" is *itself* evil, a morally bad action.

Furthermore, I think it is empirically the case that speaking of people (instead of just their actions) as evil works to distance both speaker and listener from the people so labelled, and that this action is itself evil. And I don't mean just "produces evil effects", I mean "it is at the philosophical root of evil."

Don't run away, I just got here!

More, more. We picked this as one of our two featured posts in Candide Notebooks' daily Best of Blogs segment (www.pierretristam.com)

Do these count as facts, Slartibartfast?

Why ask me? I'm just speculating aloud that awareness of reality is probably a necessary condition for being Reality-Based (TM). Discovery that hilzoy is a bioethicist is only a Google search away.

hil, did you know you have your own Wiki? Now you can be not only self-Googling, but also self-Wikiing.

Slarti -- I do? Where? and why?

It's a Wiki under your real name. Google yourself; it's about the sixth entry down.

Ah yes, the Wikipedia page. (I thought you meant an entire Wiki, which would have been downright bizarre.) It briefly noted my not so secret hilzoy identity, before I edited it out.

Yes. Pardon my shorthand; it's gotten me into trouble before.

Winston Smith: It's a repeating pattern...take almost any argument you like against moral knowledge and the same argument vexes all knowledge: disagreement, fallibility, lack of certainty, regress...whatever.

Something occurred to me that might clarify my position in our previous exchange. Both science and math have accepted means of terminating this kind of infinite regress. In science, it's the scientific method; in math you have a number of different choices, all of which ultimately boil down to picking a logic and an axiom system. [Ironically, the nature of those choices isn't really mathematical IMO; only the consequences of those choices are.] We tend not to reduce things to this ultimate expression -- that is, we usually say "Gravity is an inverse square law" or "2+2=4" instead of the more proper "the preponderance of the evidence blah blah blah" or "PA proves 2+2=4" -- but if push came to shove, we could. And furthermore, this bedrock is both universal (everyone agrees on what's required) and objective (everyone agrees on the result of the requirements), inasmuch as anything can be either.

[Not that people didn't have either science or math prior to the appropriate foundational developments. But that's a can of worms I don't feel like opening right now.]

My qualm is: I don't see a similar means of terminating the infinite regress on matters of morality; or at least, I don't see an "easy" or "obvious" way of doing so that's both objective and universal. Thus, while I completely agree with Sebastian that everyone can look inside themselves and decide what's moral and what's not for them -- and probably do so far more easily than, for example, defining e or pi -- I can't see any way that that informs any notion of objective morality.

This could just be the result of my lack of expertise, of course -- I've spent the better part of my life working on math and next to none working on the philosophy of morality -- but I hope that clarifies some of what I was trying to say above.

Slartibartfast:

Discovery that hilzoy is a bioethicist is only a Google search away.

A google search on "Hilzoy" came up with no results. Apparently it requires knowing Hilzoy's real name. Where do I find that?

If you don't want to take the time out to track that down (and I'm not going to help you, there), there's always this. Either result isn't all that hard to discover.

oops, my bad,. I search ed wikipedia not google and realized it just as I shut down.

mason: This is somewhat beyond my ken and I'll have to think on it a bit further, but: (P & -P) evalutes to false simply because that's how the conjunction and negation operators work. Namely, if P is true then -P is false (and vice versa); and T & F evaluates to false because, well, that's how conjunction works. So on first glance what you're saying is problematic because it seems that you're asking for a specific exemption to the rules of conjunction and/or negation that's kind of unnatural.

[Worse, I think it's actually undecidable, although I'm not entirely sure offhand how to phrase it; but given that the set of consequences of a given theory is not in general computable, it's not clear to me that you can effectively determine whether a given conjunct is equivalent to the negation of the other conjunct. Which is a far, far deeper problem than the previous one I mentioned.]

That said, why do we care if our system proves false theorems? As you've said, and as Winston remarked far above, that's a bad thing assuming modus ponens, but maybe modus ponens is itself broken. And in fact, some people haven't just argued this, they've formalized it; see, for example, the Wikipedia page on paraconsistent logics.

[Depending on what you mean by contradictions, incidentally, you can somewhat finesse the issue by moving to differently-valued logics, e.g. Boolean-valued logics or continuous logics, etc. An absolute contradiction is still a contradiction, but you have, in some sense, a notion of "locally contradictory" (which doesn't explode) which is weaker than "globally contradictory" (which does).]

The catch with paraconsistency -- and this is unfortunately well beyond my expertise now -- is that in order to prevent your deductive calculus from going ape, you have to break one of the other deductive rules. In that sense, then, we're back to making one of the choices I described in my previous post: though the consequences of our choices are mathematical, the way in which we make this choice really isn't. Do we choose to accept modus ponens? Do we choose to accept the disjunctive syllogism? Do we accept a system where everything's provable? Ultimately, the choices that we make there aren't really made for "mathematical" reasons, IMO, because we make them to choose the very definition of "mathematical" itself. [And I say this as something of a Platonist, which is deeply bizarre but there you go.] And that's where I'm having trouble coming up with something nice and juicy, namely: why the heck do I think we should keep classical logic as our primary logical system -- and I do, despite having spent a few years studying topoi -- instead of throwing it over for one of these cooler alternate systems? That one I'll have to think on; and it may simply boil down to, well, IMO that's the kind of logic that's best-representative of the real world, or something equally useless.

Anarch: "My qualm is: I don't see a similar means of terminating the infinite regress on matters of morality; or at least, I don't see an "easy" or "obvious" way of doing so that's both objective and universal. Thus, while I completely agree with Sebastian that everyone can look inside themselves and decide what's moral and what's not for them -- and probably do so far more easily than, for example, defining e or pi -- I can't see any way that that informs any notion of objective morality."

This is, I think, the nub of it all. Lots of people, on reflection, are willing to accept my basic point above: that logic and reason are perfectly good ways of establishing arguments. But logic per se -- even if we stick with good old modus ponens, etc., rather than going for some of the more baroque logics -- seems to ensure consistency but nothing else. And couldn't we come up with some consistent system including any proposition you like? How do we rule out, not just inconsistent systems (which will still leave us with consistent systems containing any proposition and other consistent systems containing its opposite?

Or, in short: granted a requirement of consistency, where do we get the content that things have to be consistent with? The 'something' that moves us from the universe of possible consistent systems, some containing any proposition you please and some containing its negation, to a claim like: we can't accept this proposition?

That's the problem. I take Winston Smith's basic point to be: it's a problem that affects any proof of anything: you have to start somewhere. And I take your basic point to be: yes, but in the case of science and math, we know where (observation and stipulation, respectively), but in the case of ethics, we don't.

It's worth noting, at this point, that there's a lot of distance between 'we don't know' and 'the only starting point is our existing beliefs/social consensus/etc.

That said: some people start from our existing beliefs. I don't (with a somewhat complicated exception for political philosophy -- in that case, if one is a democrat, there's a reason for wanting one's theory to square with people's deepest beliefs).

Some people start from our preferences, which (they say) we are committed to wanting to see realized -- that is, after all, what makes something a preference of mine. And this plus some requirement that I treat others on a par with myself (and thus their preferences as counting just like mine) can lead to utilitarianism, or some other form of consequentialism.

Kantians (on my reading of Kant) start from the thought: it's not preferring that X occur that's fundamental. For any value of X, we could just change our preference, so there's nothing necessary about them. However, there is something necessary about this: that I take myself to be, other things equal, entitled to determine my own conduct. ("Other things equal" will turn out to mean: supposing that what I decide to do is consistent with my thinking I have this right. It's an internal consistency requirement.)

[Note that should be disregarded if it's not helpful: the Kantian starting point is in one respect like Descartes' "I think, therefore I am." Suppose that by 'think' you don't mean something very complicated, so that one could ask 'ah yes, you are wondering whether you exist, but are you thinking?, but something like: something is going on in my mind. And suppose that by 'I' you mean something pretty simple as well: not loaded down with content, but just 'my consciousness just now.' Then it will be true that while I could always be wrong to think that you are thinking, you cannot be wrong to think that you are thinking, for the simple reason that you are, well, thinking that. What ensures the truth of this thought is not any necessary correspondence of what it represents things as being to the way things actually are, but the mere fact that, if you're thinking it, it must be true.

Similarly, the Kantian starting point is in a sense formal: it turns not on what you will, but on the fact that you are willing something. One way to say why ethics is different from math is to say: in both cases you are not perceiving objects, observing things, etc., but in math, as far as I know, there is no particular role for the thought: I am, after all, engaging in mathematical reasoning; and thus no content to be derived from that. So you have to stipulate.-- End of disregardable note.]

Anyways: the reason I put up my article is that it makes a very stripped down, easy, and rather uncontroversial application of this sort of argument. It starts from the thought: we are all agents, and thus have some idea or other about how we think we should live. This is something that might fail to occur to someone (it surely fails to occur to my cats), but it's not something you could reject once it does occur to you, unless you're prepared to regard all options, even ones like your being horribly tortured, or your horribly torturing someone, as completely on a par.

That's one of the least loaded variants of the Kantian starting point I can think of, but it has the essential feature: it cannot be consistently rejected by an agent.

Kantians would then go on to say: suppose we are committed to the view that we have, other things equal, the right to determine our own conduct. Are we special in this regard? No. So if we cannot (not: would not, but cannot) agree to be treated in certain ways, because to do so would involve thinking that we do not have the right to determine our own conduct, we can't treat others in those ways either.

So: if I lie to you to get you to do something that you would not want to do if you knew the truth, I am treating you like a thing, and my words as causal interventions to get you to do what I want. I cannot consistently consent to be treated in this way myself; and so I should not treat you in this way either. -- The five second version of Kant's moral theory.

This is one of my favorite aspects of OW, by the way: that we can get an understandable distillation of something as complicatable as morality. Even I understood that last part.

Thanks, hilzoy. That was a thing of beauty.

Anarch wrote:

Both science and math have accepted means of terminating this kind of infinite regress. In science, it's the scientific method . . . I don't see a similar means of terminating the infinite regress on matters of morality; or at least, I don't see an "easy" or "obvious" way of doing so that's both objective and universal.

I think you are 180 degrees wrong.

Hilzoy said:

The right view, by contrast, will lead us to try to understand these people as recognizably human beings who behave in more or less comprehensible ways; as, in some broad sense, like us.

-- which I tied in to the Golden Rule. Both of these may be paraphrased or summed up as:

Try to see things from the other person's point of view.

The scientific method (here I put on my historian of science hat) is not the goal of science, it is a set of tools. The purpose of the tools is to define and communicate what things look like from your point of view so accurately that other people can take your word for your observations, and then you can take their word for theirs. The result is that you can build your picture of the world from more observations than you could make yourself. As Newton said, scientists don't have to be tall because we stand on the shoulders of giants -- or on a ladder of other dwarves.

Think of the metaphor of the Blind Men and the Elephant. In the poem, the Blind Men are theologians (or philosophers *ahem*), and each argues that his view is right and the others are wrong. IMO if they were truly religious leaders, each would be arguing that he's right because there used to be a guy who wasn't blind who told him what the Elephant really looked like, and it matches the bit that's in front of him. And then there are the mystics, who have wandered away from the Elephant and are trying to turn on the lights.

When the Blind Men are scientists, though, each focuses on describing his particular part of the Elephant to the others in excruciating detail, far more detail than a sighted person needs to draw an overall picture of the Elephant. But it's the scientists who find out that the skin on the "Tree" (the leg) is very like that on the "Wall" (the side), while the people studying the "Snake" (the trunk) keep bumping into those working on the "Spear" (the tusk).

Personally, I think the advantage of the scientific approach is that it *is* both easy and obvious. It's also meticulous, detail-oriented, and time-consuming. It will take the scientific Blind Men centuries to come up with a good picture of an Elephant, and they're going to produce some pretty strange images along the way. The thing is, unlike the other Blind Men, they *will* get there first -- unless the mystics manage to turn on the lights.

Anarch: thanks again. After I made my last post I dug around and found some material on dialetheism, which is also related.

I understand of course that (p & -p) is false by the definitions of conjunction and negation, but my thought was that in a system that is inconsistent in that it lets you derive both p and -p, p and -p could both be regarded as true (because derivable/provable), so the conjunction would evaluate as true. Even though that violates the definition of negation.

Y'all still here?

Forgive me if I missed it in my skimming, but why would morality not generate contradictions? Why wouldn't there be situations where competing moral claims can't be resolved? Where tragic choices are inevitable?

Why assume, as I think Slarti did above, that the sine qua non of morality is the absence of self-contradictions?

Anderson: complicated question, with different possible answers, depending on your metaethics. To my mind, there should at least be non-contradictory answers to questions about what, all things considered, we should do -- conflicting moral claims should be conflicting prima facie claims, and in case of conflict there should either be one that we should follow, or we should be able permissibly to follow either.

Being a Kantgrrl, I regard reason as the engine of it all, so I am of course committed to a stronger claim about contradictions.

I think there are poems in the following sense: take a human H raised in a human society speaking language X, there are strings of X that will repeatably arouse emotions in H and exposure to a variety of such strings will produce a more varied repeated response.

I can imagine moralities in this sort of sense, strings that affect behavior towards others: "love thy neighbor", "charity begins at home", "love as thou wilt", "he who dies with the most toys wins". I don't see why a morality has any privilege over a poem, though. A morality may describe an effective strategy for the user, as a poem may describe an actual object; and we may perceive either as beautiful or ugly; but at the end of the day they're still strings.

Or perhaps one could consider chess - a player may consult a strategy for getting through a game: "seize the center", "blockade passed pawns with knights"; but the truth of the situation is if white plays this then if black plays that then ...

Or consider some version of the prisoner's dilemma. Where would a morality be in that context?

Umm, "What would", or something.

mason: I understand of course that (p & -p) is false by the definitions of conjunction and negation, but my thought was that in a system that is inconsistent in that it lets you derive both p and -p, p and -p could both be regarded as true (because derivable/provable), so the conjunction would evaluate as true. Even though that violates the definition of negation.

There are two possible ways I see this going; if I've misunderstood your intent, please let me know.

1) "True" becomes synonymous with "provable" to some extent: that is, we consider both P and -P to be true because we can prove them both.

2) We keep "true" distinct from "provable" and rewrite to say that the negation operator has an additional clause that explicitly undermines negation in the case that T proves both P and -P.

To the first, this is essentially the dialethetic position (and similar the intuitionistic position too) and you're better off reading the Wiki than listening to me :) The second, however, I can pretty much definitively say won't work -- or at least, won't work usefully, at least not without a substantial re-rigging of the system. The trouble (for now) is that you're mixing notions of "truth" and "provability" in a way that I can't untangle. Specifically, you'll need to be a lot more careful in distinguishing whether a given theory T proves (P & -P) versus whether (P & -P) is true in some model. In order to do that, you'll have to change two separate notions -- truth and provability -- and I don't see how to do that in a consistent, or maybe coherent, fashion, i.e. without breaking Soundness or effectiveness of provability or something.

Doctor Science: I think you are 180 degrees wrong.

Okey dokey.

The scientific method (here I put on my historian of science hat) is not the goal of science, it is a set of tools. The purpose of the tools is to define and communicate what things look like from your point of view so accurately that other people can take your word for your observations, and then you can take their word for theirs.

I genuflect towards your chapeau, but I think you're nonetheless missing the point here. The purpose of the scientific method isn't just about communication -- although that's an important piece of it, and certainly a great boon in practice -- it's precisely to stop the infinite regress of which Winston spoke above. That is, the SM ultimately creates a notion of "scientifically provable" that allows us to make universal claims that are otherwise impermissible using prior logical methods.

[For those who like technical crunchiness: as a crude analogy, the scientific method is to omega-consistency as omega-consistency is to regular consistency. Both allow proofs of universal quantifiers using data sets too restrictive for the other proof-method to use.]

So while it's certainly true that a great utility of the scientific method is that it allows communication of data between individuals, that's not its great triumph at a philosophical level. The point is that it offers us a notion of "provable" which seems to cohere very effectively with the real world. [The catch, of course, is that it limits the kinds of data about which we can make these universal generalizations; so much so, in fact, that we usually identify such phenomena with science itself.] From my view, the fact that we can combine our efforts is a (greatly, greatly desired and enormously, enormously useful) corollary of the notion of provability that the SM imposes.

Which may well be ahistorical -- I have no idea whether the method was developed as a means of communicating information or whether it was developed more individually -- but that's a separate issue IMO.

Anarch, your explanations have me so utterly Lost that I have to ask: does all of that come from majoring in mathematics? If so, um...is it doctoral-level? Becaus I've taken a number of math courses at the graduate level and never, ever been even close to the level of abstraction of this discussion.

Of course, there was this pesky emphasis on applications that might have left some things out.

Becaus I've taken a number of math courses at the graduate level and never, ever been even close to the level of abstraction of this discussion.

There's an old truism that when mathematicians admit to their profession, they always get one of two reactions: "?!" and "OMG, I was so terrible at math."

As mathematicians are to normal folk, so logicians are to mathematicians. For better and (usually) for worse (:

I should also add that I'm not really explaining things in my comfort zone here, so the level of abstraction is getting ramped up far higher than when I usually talk about these things. [Which is vanishingly rare, see above.] IMO, it's only once you've truly understood something technical that you can then explain it in a comprehensible way, and I don't really understand i) morality, ii) paraconsistency, or iii) what the frack I'm trying to say.

And fwiw: most of the abstraction that you're seeing here simply isn't dealt with in 99% of math courses because it's simply not relevant to 99% of math. I can't think of any reason why anyone outside of a logic course* would need to know how addition is defined, or what 4 is, or why 2+2=4 or to obsess over the distinction between a concept and the symbol which names it. It suffices that, for example, the real numbers exist, as does anything else you can "reasonably" define. Tada! You've just got enough to do all of analysis, both theoretical and computational, and most other things besides.

Unfortunately, I have to care about such things, both by native inclination and nowadays by practical exigencies, i.e. I'm doing research on the stuff.** If you're interested in getting a more entry-level approach to some of what we've been talking about here, I can certainly prep some basic notions -- formal languages, truth, provability, consistency, and the like -- to make you feel less Lost, but I'll warn you: the only satisfaction you'll get out of such things is, well, the satisfaction of knowing them. They're not exactly useful knowledge, unless you consider irritating and/or bewildering your interlocutors "useful".

* With the exception of the ever-so-slightly burgeoning field of non-standard analysis, which has been making some interesting progress in probability and stochastic processes.

** In fact, the particular result I'm working on right now consists of trying to find a way to name a concept in one model that's only definable in a different one, essentially by introducing a new symbol to the first model and "pretending" it names the thing I'm after. It's a pretty standard trick in other contexts, but making it work here is proving... challenging.

Anarch, I think your view *is* ahistorical, which is sort of like "wrong". At least, it does not describe what scientists actually do or think about, how we interact and how scientific knowledge grows. Ludwig Fleck's Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact gives a much better idea of what I'm talking about than I can.

From my POV, "scientific proven" does not mean "so consistent and logical that it is as sure to be correct everywhere and all the time as 2+2=4". (I don't know if that's what is meant by "omega-consistency") Among other things, one of the field marks of a scientific fact/truth/proof is that it will not hold: in the course of time, *all* scientific truths are modified, overthrown, discarded, or made into special cases. I didn't understand all the philosophy you-all were tossing about, so I don't know if this is equivalent to saying that Winston's problem of infinite regress still operates in science or not.

In any event, when a scientist says, "I've proven X!" she doesn't mean, "I'm sure X will be true always & everywhere!" She means, "X explains the data we've gotten so far, and I predict it will work in your lab as well as mine!" Her proof gets her closer to the truth, but it does not get her *certainty* in either the philosophical or religious sense.

Probably because of my background, in my imagination moral truths look like scientific truths, not mathematical ones. That is, they would start out very low-level and detailed, contingent, and modifiable. But then, my ideas about mathematics & logic have been strongly influenced by Davis and Hersc's The Mathematical Experience, which convinced me that mathematics is one of the humanities.

I always liked Pirsig's description of the scientific method

Actually I have never seen a cycle-type maintenance problem complex enough to really require full-scale formal scientific method. Repair problems are not that hard. When I think of formal scientific method, an image sometimes comes to mind of an enormous juggernaut. A huge bulldozer--slow, tedious, lumbering, laborious, but invincible. It takes twice as long, five times as long, maybe a dozen times as long as informal mechanic's techniques, but you know in the end you are going to get it. There is no fault isolation problem in motorcycle maintenance that can stand up to it. When you've hit a really tough one, tried everything, racked your brains and nothing works, and you know that Nature this time has really decided to be difficult, you say, "Okay, Nature, that's the end of the nice guy," and you crank up the formal scientific method.

Incidentally, the whole text of Zen and the Art of motocycle maintenance is here

I'm not sure why Dr. S thinks ahistorical is "wrong". In linguistics, people often ask 'what does this word 'really' mean' when they are trying to find out about the etymology. What they generally want is the historical meaning because there is this notion that the 'real' meaning is tied up in the origin. While I'm sure that it can be helpful to know the original meaning, I'm not so sure things are rigidly defined by what they used to be.

Also, while Anarch is up at the podium, I have a question. I've always thought that one of the problems we have is that we can't actually get our heads around stochastic events. We look at something like cancer causing agents or potential risk, and it is possible for one person to say Ohmigod, I have a 1 in 1000 chance of dying if I do this and another person say 1/1000? wow, that's pretty safe. So my question is do you feel like you 'get' it and understand this sort of stuff in your gut?

l. japonicus:

What they generally want is the historical meaning because there is this notion that the 'real' meaning is tied up in the origin.

This is what I mean by "ahistorical". If you think of the word as having some intrinsic meaning external to any human society and its changes, then you are looking for an ahistorical meaning.

To talk about a scientific truth (e.g. Newton's law of motion) ahistorically is to ignore the fact that they developed in a particular context and that they change as we change.

Anarch said:

So while it's certainly true that a great utility of the scientific method is that it allows communication of data between individuals, that's not its great triumph at a philosophical level

But I say that from the POV of moral philosophy communication *is* the point. Indeed, I think that communication is the quintessential moral act, because it presupposes that there is a mind like mine at the other end.

crumbs, the blockquote should have closed after the words "philosophical level".

The moral of this story: when you're too tired to close your tags, it's time for sleep.

Dr. S,
I think you are getting into Feyerabendian territory, which I don't think illuminates morality. In fact, if you are going to define communication as "the quintessential moral act", and then argue the scientific method as a form of information transmittal, you open the door to Feyerabend's notion that there is no method (and I've never figured out if Feyerabend is being serious or just Sokal before Sokal)

This is not to say that an analysis of how science actually progresses is not vitally important (nor a complaint that the scientific method applied too narrowly yields acceptable conclusions is somehow out of bounds), but to claim that no scientific truths are separable from the historical contexts in which they arise seems too severe to accept, which seems what you are suggesting here

To talk about a scientific truth (e.g. Newton's law of motion) ahistorically is to ignore the fact that they developed in a particular context and that they change as we change.

Perhaps I am overstating your postion, but when you argue that Anarch is '180 degrees wrong', it might come with the territory.

To my mind, there should at least be non-contradictory answers to questions about what, all things considered, we should do -- conflicting moral claims should be conflicting prima facie claims, and in case of conflict there should either be one that we should follow, or we should be able permissibly to follow either.

I can see wanting to *construct* a system like this, and it may even be possible; I'm just not sure that it would match up with anyone's actual idea of morality (Kantgrrls possibly excluded). I suppose the response is that our ideas of morality are deficient to that extent.

I guess I have pluralism, a la Berlin, on my mind. Incommensurability in his sense seems entirely plausible in the moral sphere.

Cf. Slacktivist on torture and abortion.

l. japonicus:

Feyerabend was a *long* time ago for me, and I'm pretty sure I didn't really understand him then, so I don't know what you mean by warning me against "Feyerabendian territory".

Refreshing my memory at Wikipedia,
I guess I *do* reject the idea of a universal method, in that I think the test of any method is its utility, and no method can be expected to be useful in every situation. I'm less anarchistic than Feyerabend, in that I think that science is properly a human social activity and will naturally be structured like one. I also am more approving of falsificationism, not for philosophical reasons but because I have observed that it makes it easier for scientists to let go of their own mistakes. Once again, it is *useful*.

Hilzoy says her inclination as a Kantgrrl is "reason should be the engine" of morality; for me as a scientist, *observation* should be the engine. I expect there to be conflicting moral claims, and for the possible outcomes to be, as she said:

a) one we should follow

b) we can permissibly follow either

c) OR both are incomplete or mistaken. This third option, as the Slacktivist discussion Anderson linked to shows, will be the most common one in practice. This is where the moral work is, and the solution must first involve more observation.

Hilzoy, in case you're still following this thread:

there is something necessary about this: that I take myself to be, other things equal, entitled to determine my own conduct.

I'm missing a step here -- what do you mean exactly by "entitled"? I certainly have to acknowledge that I have some ideas of how to live, and I have a desire to determine my own conduct, but I don't see why that necessarily means that I have a right to do so.

I think I would have to know where that right comes from before I could decide whether it's a logical necessity that I grant it to others.

Also, while Anarch is up at the podium, I have a question. I've always thought that one of the problems we have is that we can't actually get our heads around stochastic events. We look at something like cancer causing agents or potential risk, and it is possible for one person to say Ohmigod, I have a 1 in 1000 chance of dying if I do this and another person say 1/1000? wow, that's pretty safe. So my question is do you feel like you 'get' it and understand this sort of stuff in your gut?

Eh, not really sure. Part of that reaction is just the simple utility of my survival; Kantgrrliness aside, we're simply more willing to tolerate someone else dying. I'm a lot better with orders of magnitude than the average layperson, true,* but I'm probably significantly worse than, say, an engineer who routinely deals in exponential changes. Same thing is true with statistics; both by virtue of being generally interested in numbers, and by virtue of reasoning very, very rigorously as a profession, I'm probably better than the average layperson at deducing which statistics are BS, which are plausible, and which are robust... but again, compared to an actual expert? Dunno.

* A few years back, when my union was going on strike, I was trying to explain to my students how much money was at stake relative to the budget for the university as a whole. They'd all seen the numbers before, but none of them had any appreciation for the scale of the issue; specifically, how little a pittance the state was willing to screw us over for. It was the "principle" of the thing, you see -- though god alone only knows what the principle was.

Hey y'all
Just a thanks for the answers. This has moved off the recent post list, but I'm sure we'll be blessed with an ethics post from Hilzoy where we can hash this out some more. Or, alternatively, if any of you wants to write up a post and I will put it up at HoCB, drop me a line at my gmail address

Anarch:
once again, thanks for your time and insight. I do appreciate the need to keep truth and provability distinguished (my understanding being that truth is a semantic notion while provability is a syntactic one).

Of the two possible directions you note --

1) "True" becomes synonymous with "provable" to some extent: that is, we consider both P and -P to be true because we can prove them both.

2) We keep "true" distinct from "provable" and rewrite to say that the negation operator has an additional clause that explicitly undermines negation in the case that T proves both P and -P.

-- I think I had 1) more in mind than 2). But I wasn't thinking of 'true' as synonymous with 'provable' so much as I was regarding provability as sufficient for truth, even though (post-Goedel) truth is not sufficient for provability.

The considerations I've been mulling over do seem to me to be somewhat intuitionistic/finitist, but it's clear to me here that I am out of my depth. For one thing, I've always thought of myself as an anti-Platonist and a constructivist about the ontological status of mathematical objects, but at the same time I don't see why there has to be a problem with mathematics generalizing over infinitely large objects, even ones that no one has actually constructed. Maybe that's just incoherent. I'm not sure. I do think logic ought to be constrained by reality in some sense, and things like jettisoning the standard definition of negation or disjunctive inference seem to me to violate that requirement. But then so would imaginary numbers, or Riemannian geometry, had I not been assured otherwise by experts.

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