Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Limits of Science

My view is that there are no theoretical limits on what science can discover. To put it another way, there are no inherently undiscoverable facts. This is naturalism as I understand it.

I think this is an a priori truth. It doesn't make sense to say that there are things that exist but which science cannot study. I know it seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to say; but when analyzed, it doesn't stands to reason. What it would mean is that there are facts which cannot be described by any process of describing facts. It would mean there were inherently indescribable facts. But facts are describable by definition. So it's a contradiction in terms. You can believe in the indescribable--you can believe in the supernatural--but not rationally. That's why people call it "faith."

Wittgenstein wrote, "A nothing would do just as well as a something about which nothing could be said." The relevance is thus: When discussing what is possible, there is no difference between postulating the indescribable and postulating nothing at all. So there is no sense in supposing that the indescribable is even possible. It's just a meaningless assertion. It can have emotive power, for sure; it can inspire faith. But it cannot be the subject of rational belief.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Naturalism Defined

I've gotten involved in an interesting discussion of naturalism at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. The discussion was instigated by the work of Richard Carrier, who is neither a philosopher nor a scientist, but a historian who writes about both. Unfortunately, I think he should probably stick to history. His attempt to define "naturalism" and "supernaturalism" is marked by fallacy and inconsistency. (Update: I point out several problems with his arguments in a comment attached to this post.)

Carrier's definitions are as follows: "naturalism is true if everything that exists is causally reducible to the nonmental. . . . If naturalism is true, everything mental is caused by the nonmental, whereas if supernaturalism is true, at least one thing is not." Yet, naturalism and supernaturalism are not exclusively theses about minds or mental entities. For example, Carrier excludes the possibility of David Chalmers' variety of naturalistic dualism. (More on naturalistic dualism below.) Furthermore, some naturalists may adopt the Rylean view that the way we talk about mental entities and events is categorically unlike the language we use to talk about physical events. Mental entities are not causes or events in a causal chain. Rather, they are dispositions. So for a Rylean naturalist, it is not the case that "everything mental is caused by the nonmental."

Carrier misses the defining features of supernaturalism and naturalism. In my posts at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, I offered a replacement definition: Naturalism is the view that science can describe all of the causes. To put it another way, naturalism is the view that no causes are theoretically outside the bounds of scientific discovery.

Here's the main substance of my posts (edited and revised for cohesion), in which I elucidate and defend my view:

Supernaturalism is not the belief that there are some mental entities which have not been caused by physical entities. Rather, supernaturalism is usually defined as the belief that nature is subservient to another realm. Supernaturalists believe that what happens in nature is ultimately caused by events outside of nature, that what is outside of nature holds dominion over nature. Also, "natural" seems to mean "describable with scientific methodology." So supernaturalism is a view about the limits of science to account for nature. According to supernaturalists, science can describe nature, but it cannot describe the ultimate causes of nature--it cannot account for what holds dominion over nature. Naturalism is the rejection of this view. Naturalism is the belief that science can describe all of the causes.

A key issue is how we understand the word "science." I don't think science is defined by a single set of laws or methods. New scientific methods are developed as science progresses. So, when I refer to "science," I'm not referring to anything that is limited by our current capabilities or knowledge. I'm referring to the process of expanding shared capabilities and knowledge.

Naturalism is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. (I'm disagreeing with some well-known and outspoken scientists here, like Sean Carroll. I've expressed my disagreement with Carroll before. So be it.) The reason it is impossible to scientifically falsify naturalism is that, to do so, you'd have to have scientific evidence for something which was not natural. Since "natural" is defined as what is describable by science, this is a priori impossible. This doesn't make naturalism irrefutable. It only makes it a matter of philosophical, and not scientific, concern.

Earlier I said science is the process of expanding shared capabilities and knowledge. I meant knowledge of historical facts and causal relationships, and not knowledge simpliciter. In addition to scientific knowledge, we have knowledge of the rules of discourse. This sort of knowledge logically (if not historically) precedes scientific discovery.

As a philosophical position, naturalism is a matter of analytic truths, and not synthetic ones. It's a way of defining boundaries in our language. As I see it, naturalism is true by definition. However, if the definition were shown to be incoherent or inconsistent with other analytic truths, then naturalism would be open to doubt.

The definition of naturalism I am proposing is not arbitrary, and it is not defined to privilege a particular side in current debates. Rather, it is based on the history of 20th century philosophy. There's a clear tradition in 20th century philosophy to regard naturalism as a view about science and its limits. Naturalistic dualists, for example, regard mental entities either as fundamentally unlike the entities currently postulated by the sciences (a la Sellars), or as fundamentally unlike any other entities any science could ever postulate (a la Chalmers)--yet, at the same time, they stipulate that mental entities are theoretically describable via some as-yet-unknown scientific methodology. They define the mind as within the boundaries of scientific discovery, and that is why they call themselves naturalists. Other naturalists (e.g., Dewey, Quine, Dennett, etc.) reject dualism but still identify naturalism with a devotion to science. So, while there may be a traditional set of questions that naturalists have tended to be concerned with, I don't think that is reason to question the defining attribute of naturalism as a view about science--specifically, a rejection of the limits on science which supernaturalists attempt to impose.

There are many attempts to distinguish varieties of naturalism, such as epistemological vs. ontological naturalism, and metaphysical vs. methodological naturalism: I think the best way to approach such discussions is to focus on what naturalism is primarily about, and that is the philosophy of science.

I don't see an important distinction between metaphysical and methodological naturalism. It seems to me that those who accept methodological naturalism but not metaphysical naturalism are in a very peculiar position: They want to protect religious belief from scientific scrutiny, but are at the same time denying their ability to make that religious belief relevant. Either that, or they want to limit methodological naturalism (and thus science itself) to only a subset of what can be discovered. In that case, they are saying that methodological naturalism is not a philosophically grounded position at all, and so shouldn't be given any weight in arguments about the supernatural. So, frankly, I don't trust any attempt to distinguish metaphysical from methodological naturalism.

Also, I don't see much point in trying to distinguish between ontological and epistemological naturalism. It seems to be more a semantic difference, though maybe I'm missing some of the philosophical subtlety there.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Morality, Personal and Social

I have been discussing dignity in personal terms, as what defines a person as such, and so with reference to self-awareness, self-worth, and self-respect. Yet, morality has an intrinsically social dimension. This might seem to create a tension in our understanding, though I don't think that should be the case.

Rationality and personhood are normative concepts--they require communities. Dignity therefore cannot be defined from the inside, such that each person's dignity were a wholly subjective matter. Rather, personhood is defined through social interaction, through rational processes of negotiating differences. There could be no concept of person without the process of rational negotiation. So, when we have dignity--when we respect and value ourselves--we are understanding and defining ourselves through others. When we condemn or praise others with our own moral judgments, we are saying something about what it means to be a person. We are setting a standard for ourselves and all others.

Thus, we might say that to foster dignity is to promote, negotiate, and follow principles which guide rational negotiation.

I should add that I am using the term "negotiation" very widely, to cover all types of inter-personal influence, including formal and informal conflict and dispute resolution and both physical and psychological manipulation.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

More on Kant, Dignity, and Morality

Ronald A. Lindsay was kind enough to reply to my comment about the purpose of morality. (I claimed that the primary function of morality was to foster the dignity of persons--i.e., rational, self-aware agents.) He asked for some clarification of what I meant by "dignity," and also made some comments which reminded me that his primary concern is with establishing a methodology for resolving moral dilemmas. Here is the substance of my reply:

I agree that it might be hard for people to accept my answer without a little discussion of what “dignity” means. I like the way Kant approaches it. He contrasts dignity with prices. Prices are relative values, and they are fixed to objects because those objects are means to ends. The value of an object is relative to the ends it serves. For Kant, dignity is the quality of being beyond comparative value. It is the quality of being an end in oneself. Persons are distinct from objects because they have dignity—they are ends in themselves—and this is what defines their moral dimension.

I don’t suppose most people think about dignity in these terms. We are more likely to think of dignity in terms of self-worth, or self-respect. But these needn’t be treated as mutually exclusive alternatives to Kant’s view. Rather, Kant may have been suggesting an explanation for what it means to value and respect oneself.

It’s common to say that everyone has a price, that we can all be bought. Isn’t this another way of saying that moral principles only go so far? Though isn’t it impossible to buy a person completely, so that they can no longer think of themselves as an end? No, I don’t think you can buy a person’s sense of self—though with violence you can destroy it.

One lacks moral principles to the extent that one can be bought. But this is not to say that one’s moral principles are necessarily good. It is only to recognize them as moral principles, for better or for worse.

I think the point to take to heart here is that understanding what morality is for—what makes morality what it is—does not help us resolve moral dilemmas. It does not tell us which moral principles are good or bad. It doesn’t tell us what we should do with morality. It only tells us how to recognize a moral principle as such.

As for constructing a methodology for resolving moral dilemmas . . . I’m not so optimistic that this can be done. Rules of thumb can be loosely established, if we’re talking about a third-party methodology. E.g., Find the most basic common ground. Identify the motivating emotional and circumstantial factors. Establish the relevant scientific and historical facts. Look for possible areas of compromise. Avoid harm. Minimize losses. Etc. But I’m not sure how well moral disagreements lend themselves to third-party moderation. And without that, I don’t see how a methodology could be possible at all.

Kant on Morality and Dignity

Yesterday I came up with the notion that the primary function of morality is to foster dignity. I noted a relation between my idea and Kant's view of rational agents as ends in themselves, but I wasn't aware just how similar my view is to Kant's. Today, while doing a little reading about dignity, I found this passage from his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (edited and translated by Mary Gregor, Cambridge, 1998, pp. 42-43):
In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity.

What is related to general human inclinations and needs has a market price;
that which, even without presupposing a need, conforms with a certain taste, that is, with a delight in the mere purposeless play of our mental powers, has a fancy price; but that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself has not merely a relative worth, that is, a price, but an inner worth, that is, dignity.

Now, morality is the condition under which a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawgiving member in the kingdom of ends.
Hence morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity.

Kant concludes that morality, and that which practices morality, alone has dignity on the grounds that morality is "the condition under which a rational being can be an end in itself." However, in the view which I expressed yesterday, morality requires that persons be treated as ends in themselves because morality is the practice of fostering dignity. Our views look the same, but our reasoning is in opposite directions.

Update: After a little reflection, I wonder if Kant's reasoning really is so different from my own. Kant's view may have been that only ends in themselves can have dignity, because only ends in themselves can be valued in themselves, and not according to some price. Thus, when he says morality is the kingdom of ends, he is saying that morality is the province of dignity. I'm not sure if this is quite the same as saying that morality is the practice of fostering dignity, but it seems awfully close. Still, I'm not sure how much I like defining "dignity" as being beyond price. Maybe there's nothing wrong with that definition, but it leaves a lot unsaid.

Second update (Dec. 20): I've taken out a couple paragraphs of wrong-headed Kantian interpretation.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Purpose of Morality

Ronald A. Lindsay, of the Center for Inquiry, asks, What is the purpose of morality?

Here's my answer:

In my understanding, the primary function of morality is to foster the dignity of persons, which I would define as self-aware, rational agents. The principles underlying any such process or practice would, by definition, be moral principles. Any principles which do not foster the dignity of persons could not be considered moral.

I didn't have this answer a few days ago, when I first read Lindsay's post. I had some vague idea that, from an evolutionary perspective, morality probably helps people function together. But that is too general to be of value. It doesn't get at what is unique to morality. Also, I was never persuaded by the idea that morality is functionally limited to any species, or any definable biological group. After all, we can have moral dilemmas about sentient robots. This is not to say that morality has no basis in evolutionary biology. It surely does, but those roots do not limit the scope of its functionality to any set of biological organisms.

I like the answer I came up with. I'm not sure what made me think of it, though Kant was an influence. I've always liked his idea that morality requires that we treat rational agents as ends in themselves, though I was never sure it had a firm theoretical foundation. It occurred to me that, if morality is just about fostering the dignity of rational agents, then Kant's idea logically follows.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Morality and Emotions

Richard Brown, a CUNY Assistant Professor of Philosophy and author of the blog Philosophy Sucks!, recently shared some of his thoughts on the relationship between morality and emotions. I found it very stimulating and offered several observations and objections in the comments section. We'll see if any minds are changed.

I'm posting the (cosmetically modified) content of my comments below. They're out of context here, of course, but I think my points are understandable:

  1. I appreciate the response, Richard.

    I think your view is that there must be some particular moral emotion which grounds our moral judgments. Thus, regardless of what we call it, when we talk about moral condemnation, we are talking about some particular emotion. You say we can call it “condemnation” or “boo!”, or whatever we please. (Personally, I don’t think “boo!” is an attractive option, since it is a non-denoting expression.)

    Why should we think that moral judgments require a specific sort of emotion? I would agree that, generally speaking, moral condemnation involves some negative emotions. Happiness, love, and joy do not, of themselves, lead to condemnation. Conversely, approbation requires some positive emotions. However, I don’t see why we should want to isolate one specific emotion as “condemnation,” or isolate any set of emotions as uniquely moral. Is there a well-known argument motivating this move?

    Perhaps it’s just a clash of intuitions, but it seems obvious to me that condemnation is a judgment. It’s something we intend. As such, it cannot be an emotion.

    I’m not up on the literature here, but I think there is a distinction between emotions and actions. An action cannot be an emotion, and vice versa. Actions intrinsically involve intent and reflection on the meaning of the act. Emotions do not. When I am afraid, I am not intending to be afraid, and my fear does not intrinsically involve reflection on the meaning of my fear. I do not intend my fear (though I may intentionally make myself afraid, e.g., by watching a scary movie.) Yet, when I condemn a behavior, I am intending to do this, and this involves reflecting on what my condemnation means. That is, unless I condemn by mistake; however, I cannot accidentally condemn something without misunderstanding the meaning of my actions, just as I cannot accidentally get married without misunderstanding the role of my performance in the ceremony. This is why I find it impossible to think of condemnation as an emotion. Same for approbation.

    My reason for taking issue with your notion of “correct emotions” is similar. Unlike actions, emotions cannot be correct or incorrect. Only those behaviors which are intended can be either correct or incorrect. For example, a sunset cannot be correct or incorrect, unless we are talking about some action which intended that sunset or which accidentally caused the sunset by intending to do something else.

    As a counter to my view, you say that people can justify their emotional reactions, in part by referring to logical connections between emotions and consequences (e.g., fear and harm). Let’s say I see something that looks like a snake, and I momentarily panic. Then I realize it was just a garden hose. I might say, “I shouldn’t have been afraid, because it was only a garden hose.” But can I also say, “My fear was incorrect?” I don’t think that would make sense, because my fear was not intended.

    In terms of evolutionary biology, my fear of the garden hose was adaptive. It’s adaptive to be afraid when you see something that might be a snake. You might suggest that an error arises when fear persists even after we recognize that it’s a garden hose, and not a snake. But how could this be an error?

    Perhaps the fear is based on a faulty belief about garden hoses. But in that case, it is the belief that is wrong, not the emotional response. Or let’s say the fear is not a learned response, and not a matter of faulty beliefs; it’s just a behavior without any known evolutionary advantage. Is it therefore wrong? Perhaps, if “wrong” just means “not constructive.” But then we shouldn’t say the fear is incorrect. It’s not a mistake.

  2. Another objection to your view occurs to me.

    You say that moral judgments entail particular emotions and beliefs about those emotions. Yet, moral judgments seem most clearly to be directly about behaviors, and not about whatever emotions might be involved. For example, a person might not feel that slavery is wrong, but they come to believe it is wrong through logical arguments. Thus, they agree that slavery is wrong, even though they don’t associate this with any particular emotional response to slavery. If they say “slavery is wrong,” they do not mean “it is correct to feel that slavery is wrong.” They mean something quite different, and their meaning does not entail any beliefs about emotional responses to slavery.

    More generally, when we judge a person’s behavior as either moral or immoral, we are not judging their emotional reaction to their behavior. And, usually, when we try to be more moral, we don’t start by trying to have different emotional reactions. We start by changing our intentional behavior. And we judge ourselves as moral when our intentional behavior is modified, and not when our emotional reactions are different.

    Also, if your view is that moral statements are factual, then “slavery is wrong” should be comparable to “water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit.” Yet, when we say that about water, we do not mean it is correct to feel that water boils at 212 degrees. We don’t require any particular feeling at all. So why should a particular feeling be required in the case of moral judgments?

  3. One more argument which might be worth considering . . .

    If you are correct, then justifying a moral sentiment is tantamount to justifying the claim that a particular emotional response to a particular stimulus is correct. E.g., justifying the moral sentiment that slavery is wrong requires showing that some negative moral emotion is the correct emotional response to slavery. The problem is, you have to show that slavery is wrong in order to justify the emotional reaction. What demonstrates the wrongness of slavery cannot be the emotion itself, for if that were the case, then no justification would be necessary. The answer to “why is slavery wrong?” would just be, “because it causes me to feel that it is wrong.” That is obviously not acceptable. What makes slavery wrong is not the moral emotion, but what justifies that emotion. I think this means that justifying a moral position cannot equate to justifying a moral emotion.

Monday, June 7, 2010

What is Philosophy?

Brian Leiter has invited his readers to answer this question in 75 words or less. The original challenge was to do it in 50 words or less, but I guess Leiter thought that wasn't fair. In any case, I've just submitted the following 49-word answer to his blog:

Philosophy is thinking about thinking. It explores the varieties and limits of thought and thinking things. It is therefore concerned with understanding the nature of knowledge, belief, intuition, propositions, judgments, facts, inferences, arguments, reasons, and justifications. To this end, it develops views of meaning, truth, validity, morality, possibility, and plausibility.

Edited on June 7, 2010, to add a 50th word: "meaning."