What is science and why should we care? — Part I

sokal.alanby Alan Sokal

I propose to share with you a few reflections about the nature of scientific inquiry and its importance for public life. At a superficial level one could say that I will be addressing some aspects of the relation between science and society; but as I hope will become clear, my aim is to discuss the importance, not so much of science, but of what one might call the scientific worldview — a concept that goes far beyond the specific disciplines that we usually think of as “science” — in humanity’s collective decision-making. I want to argue that clear thinking, combined with a respect for evidence — especially inconvenient and unwanted evidence, evidence that challenges our preconceptions — are of the utmost importance to the survival of the human race in the twenty-first century, and especially so in any polity that professes to be a democracy.

Of course, you might think that calling for clear thinking and a respect for evidence is a bit like advocating Motherhood and Apple Pie (if you’ll pardon me this Americanism) — and in a sense you’d be right. Hardly anyone will openly defend muddled thinking or disrespect for evidence. Rather, what people do is to surround these practices with a fog of verbiage designed to conceal from their listeners — and in most cases, I would imagine, from themselves as well — the true implications of their way of thinking. George Orwell got it right when he observed that the main advantage of speaking and writing clearly is that “when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself” [1]. So I hope that I will be as clear here as Orwell would have wished. And I intend to illustrate disrespect for evidence with a variety of examples — coming from the Left and the Right and the Center — starting from some fairly lightweight targets and proceeding to heavier ones. I aim to show that the implications of taking seriously an evidence-based worldview are rather more radical than many people realize.

So let me start, perhaps a bit pedantically, by drawing some important distinctions. The word science, as commonly used, has at least four distinct meanings: it denotes an intellectual endeavor aimed at a rational understanding of the natural and social world; it denotes a corpus of currently accepted substantive knowledge; it denotes the community of scientists, with its mores and its social and economic structure; and, finally, it denotes applied science and technology. In this essay I will be concentrating on the first two aspects, with some secondary references to the sociology of the scientific community; I will not address technology at all. Thus, by science I mean, first of all, a worldview giving primacy to reason and observation and a methodology aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of the natural and social world. This methodology is characterized, above all else, by the critical spirit: namely, the commitment to the incessant testing of assertions through observations and/or experiments — the more stringent the tests, the better — and to revising or discarding those theories that fail the test. One corollary of the critical spirit is fallibilism: namely, the understanding that all our empirical knowledge is tentative, incomplete and open to revision in the light of new evidence or cogent new arguments (though, of course, the most well-established aspects of scientific knowledge are unlikely to be discarded entirely).

It is important to note that well-tested theories in the mature sciences are supported in general by a powerful web of interlocking evidence coming from a variety of sources. Moreover, the progress of science tends to link these theories into a unified framework, so that (for instance) biology has to be compatible with chemistry, and chemistry with physics. The philosopher Susan Haack [2] has illuminatingly analogized science to the problem of completing a crossword puzzle, in which any modification of one word will entail changes in interlocking words; in most cases the required changes will be fairly local, but in some cases it may be necessary to rework large parts of the puzzle.

I stress that my use of the term “science” is not limited to the natural sciences, but includes investigations aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of factual matters relating to any aspect of the world by using rational empirical methods analogous to those employed in the natural sciences. (Please note the limitation to questions of fact. I intentionally exclude from my purview questions of ethics, aesthetics, ultimate purpose, and so forth.) Thus, “science” (as I use the term) is routinely practiced not only by physicists, chemists and biologists, but also by historians, detectives, plumbers and indeed all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives. (Of course, the fact that we all practice science from time to time does not mean that we all practice it equally well, or that we practice it equally well in all areas of our lives.)

The extraordinary successes of the natural sciences over the last 400 years in learning about the world, from quarks to quasars and everything in-between, are well known to every modern citizen: science is a fallible yet enormously successful method for obtaining objective (albeit approximate and incomplete) knowledge of the natural (and to a lesser extent, the social) world.

But, surprisingly, not everyone accepts this; and here I come to my first — and most lightweight — example of adversaries of the scientific worldview, namely academic postmodernists and extreme social constructivists. Such people insist that so-called scientific knowledge does not in fact constitute objective knowledge of a reality external to ourselves, but is a mere social construction, on a par with myths and religions, which therefore have an equal claim to validity. If such a view seems so implausible that you wonder whether I am somehow exaggerating, consider the following assertions by prominent sociologists:

“[T]he validity of theoretical propositions in the sciences is in no way affected by factual evidence.” (Kenneth Gergen) [3]

“The natural world has a small or non-existent role in the construction of scientific knowledge.” (Harry Collins) [4]

“For the relativist [such as ourselves] there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such.” (Barry Barnes and David Bloor) [5]

“Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature’s representation, not the consequence, we can never use the outcome — Nature — to explain how and why a controversy has been settled.” (Bruno Latour) [6]

“Science legitimates itself by linking its discoveries with power, a connection which determines (not merely influences) what counts as reliable knowledge.” (Stanley Aronowitz) [7]

Statements as clear-cut as these are, however, rare in the academic postmodernist literature. More often one finds assertions that are ambiguous but can nevertheless be interpreted (and quite often are interpreted) as implying what the foregoing quotations make explicit: that science as I have defined it is an illusion, and that the purported objective knowledge provided by science is largely or entirely a social construction. For example, Katherine Hayles, professor of literature at Duke University and former president of the Society for Literature and Science, writes the following as part of her feminist analysis of fluid mechanics:

“Despite their names, conservation laws are not inevitable facts of nature but constructions that foreground some experiences and marginalize others. … Almost without exception, conservation laws were formulated, developed, and experimentally tested by men. If conservation laws represent particular emphases and not inevitable facts, then people living in different kinds of bodies and identifying with different gender constructions might well have arrived at different models for [fluid] flow.” [8]

What an interesting idea: perhaps “people living in different kinds of bodies” will learn to see beyond those masculinist laws of conservation of energy and momentum. And Andrew Pickering, a prominent sociologist of science, asserts the following in his otherwise-excellent history of modern elementary-particle physics:

“[G]iven their extensive training in sophisticated mathematical techniques, the preponderance of mathematics in particle physicists’ accounts of reality is no more hard to explain than the fondness of ethnic groups for their native language. On the view advocated in this chapter, there is no obligation upon anyone framing a view of the world to take account of what twentieth-century science has to say.” [9]

But let me not spend time beating a dead horse, as the arguments against postmodernist relativism are by now fairly well known: rather than plugging my own writings, let me suggest the superb book by the Canadian philosopher of science James Robert Brown, Who Rules in Science?: An Opinionated Guide to the Wars. Suffice it to say that postmodernist writings systematically confuse truth with claims of truth, fact with assertions of fact, and knowledge with pretensions to knowledge — and then sometimes go so far as to deny that these distinctions have any meaning.

Now, it’s worth noting that the postmodernist writings I have just quoted all come from the 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, over the past decade, academic postmodernists and social constructivists seem to have backed off the most extreme views that they previously espoused. Perhaps I and like-minded critics of postmodernism can take some small credit for this, by initiating a public debate that shed a harsh light of criticism on these views and forced some strategic retreats. But most of the credit, I think, has to be awarded to George W. Bush and his friends, who showed just where science-bashing can lead in the real world. Nowadays, even sociologist of science Bruno Latour, who spent several decades stressing the so-called “social construction of scientific facts,” laments the ammunition he fears he and his colleagues have given to the Republican right-wing, helping them to deny or obscure the scientific consensus on global climate change, biological evolution and a host of other issues. He writes:

“While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.” [10]

That, of course, is exactly the point I was trying to make back in 1996 about social-construction talk taken to subjectivist extremes. I hate to say I told you so, but I did — as did, several years before me, Noam Chomsky, who recalled that in a not-so-distant past:

“Left intellectuals took an active part in the lively working class culture. Some sought to compensate for the class character of the cultural institutions through programs of workers’ education, or by writing best-selling books on mathematics, science, and other topics for the general public. Remarkably, their left counterparts today often seek to deprive working people of these tools of emancipation, informing us that the ‘project of the Enlightenment’ is dead, that we must abandon the ‘illusions’ of science and rationality — a message that will gladden the hearts of the powerful, delighted to monopolize these instruments for their own use.” [11]

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Alan Sokal is a Professor of Physics at New York University and Professor of Mathematics at University College London. His most recent book is Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture (Oxford University Press).

[1] Orwell, George. 1953 [1946]. Politics and the English language, in A Collection of Essays, pp. 156–171. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p. 171.

[2] Haack, Susan. 1993. Evidence and Inquiry: Towards Reconstruction in Epistemology. Blackwell.

[3] Gergen, Kenneth J. 1988. Feminist critique of science and the challenge of social episte- mology. In: Feminist Thought and the Structure of Knowledge, edited by Mary McCanney Gergen, pp. 27–48. New York University Press, p. 37.

[4] Collins, Harry M. 1981. Stages in the empirical programme of relativism. Social Studies

of Science 11:3–10, p. 3.

[5] Barnes, Barry and David Bloor. 1981. Relativism, rationalism and the sociology of knowl- edge. In: Rationality and Relativism, edited by Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes, pp. 21–47. Blackwell, p. 27.

[6] Latour, Bruno. 1987. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Harvard University Press, pp. 99, 258.

[7] Aronowitz, Stanley. 1988. Science as Power: Discourse and Ideology in Modern Society. University of Minnesota Press, p. 204.

[8] Hayles, N. Katherine. 1992. Gender encoding in fluid mechanics: Masculine channels and feminine flows. Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 4(2):16–44, pp. 31-32.

[9] Pickering, Andrew. 1984. Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics. University of Chicago Press, p. 413.

[10] Latour, Bruno. 2004. Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical Inquiry 30:225–248, p. 227.

[11] Chomsky, Noam. 1993. Year 501: The Conquest Continues. South End Press, p. 286.

54 thoughts on “What is science and why should we care? — Part I

  1. While I understand the need to set aside issues of ethics, I’m curious if ethics is included in your larger conceptual of a rational, evidence based world view or do you see it as merely personal preference because it’s not a matter of fact?

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  2. Science justifies itself – but so does everything. Morality is real because my morality says so, philosophy is real because I philosophized it, reasoning is real because I reasoned it, et cetera.

    But if all that is circular, then what?

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  3. Prof. Sokal: very belated salutations! I was at Rutgers when your article appeared in Social Text. I was a student of one of its editors and acquainted with the other. I think my self satisfaction in being able to say “told you so” could hardly have been less than yours at the time. Bush may have mattered more, but you did signal service!

    That said, I wonder why you spend so much time & space dredging all that up here & now. The *only* new thing here is Latour’s change of heart. Far too much needless table setting here and hardly a whiff of dinner, he said impatiently.

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  4. It’s far weaker than it was, but there’s no real replacement either, so it’s sort of an ambiguous situation. You could probably do some ngrams: indeterminancy for instance has seen a huge dropoff since the late 1980s. “Social Construction” is well off since 2000, as is “socially constructed.” Down but not dead I think would be a good analysis. But that’s not all a bad thing: folks like Aronowitz, for example, are far from stupid and if engaged in some constructive dialog might make a much better and more effective contribution to the common pursuit.

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  5. Hi Coel,
    That’s an interesting claim. I’m curious as to how you would defend it though, especially against those who would claim that you can use reason and arguments to decide on moral issues, that is not relying on mere preferences? In particular, moral theories such as those of John Rawls, which I’m partial towards. It seems to me that such theories do go beyond preferences.

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  6. Interesting discussion. Coel are you claiming that we can overcome Hume’s problem of induction? I think at the very base level, science does assume certain things to get past the circularity of trying to justify itself.

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  7. Yes, I think we can overcome the problem of induction (as I’ve argued on my blog). Essentially, induction is empirically justified; this does not give an absolute proof (Hume was right on that), but science is only ever about good-enough proofs, so this is fine for science.

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  8. Obviously a proper answer to that would be long, but I don’t see any grounding of morals other than human feeling and preference. Reason and argument can alter our feelings, but can’t establish morals themselves. (I’ve written a few things on my blog about my opinion on this, including Six reasons why objective morality is nonsense.) Which reason-based version of morality would you argue for?

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  9. >>>Obviously a proper answer to that would be long, but I don’t see any grounding of morals other than human feeling and preference. Reason and argument can alter our feelings, but can’t establish morals themselves.<<>> (I’ve written a few things on my blog about my opinion on this, including Six reasons why objective morality is nonsense.) Which reason-based version of morality would you argue for?<<<

    First, awesome blog (love the Milky way picture)! I'll respond to your full blog post on your blog when I get a chance but I already stated above my reason based version of morality (which is also draws on empirical fact). My view is the social contract version of morality as articulated by people like John Rawls (note, I don't agree with him on everything but I'll include that into my response on your blog).

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  10. I just skimmed your article but it seems like your using abduction (inference to the best explanation) rather than overcoming the problem of induction. I certainly agree that induction is a very good tool and that various successes of science are good reasons to continue using it. I don’t however see that is solving the problem of induction, which if I remember correctly, most philosopher of science have stopped trying to solve. That is to say, it’s not logically air tight, we made the assumption that it’s a good strategy and tried it out and it worked so we continue to use it.

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  11. I entirely agree that we cannot make induction “logically air tight”, but then science is never that, it is always a best-we-can-do approximation to reality, given current evidence. My post defends induction against that latter standard, which is sufficient.

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  12. Rawls says that morality is a social contract that will be fair if different sides would agree to it under the “veil of ignorance”.

    I agree. But, that is a *descriptive* account of human notions of fairness. Thus, Rawls’s scheme again grounds morality in human feelings/preferences. Who says what is fair and who says that fairness matters? Humans do.

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  13. >>>I agree. But, that is a *descriptive* account of human notions of fairness. Thus, Rawls’s scheme again grounds morality in human feelings/preferences. Who says what is fair and who says that fairness matters? Humans do.<<<

    Well it's not descriptive, it's prescriptive in that what is decided using the veil of ignorance thought experiment are "ought" statements based on rational discourse. However, this is hardly mere feelings or preferences as no one under the veil of ignorance would agree that we ought to simply do what we feel or prefer.

    As such, what is fair is determined by rational discourse behind the veil of ignorance, not being defined a-priori. As for who says fairness matters, that again is something that is not taken for granted but is something that is rationally arbitrated. There are instances in Rawl's theory where unfair practices like one person having more opportunities are allowed as long as it could be defended in the thought experiment.

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  14. Fair enough, I think we agree on the substance but maybe differ on the idea of “justifying”, which I read Lux Ferous as justifying in a philosophical absolute sense.

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  15. I think, although the author make a great contribution to the debate about the importance of science in making the world intelligible to us, he does not discuss science and social sciences in the context of the philosophy of science and the philosophy of social sciences historical perspectives. A lot of what the author brings into the table in this article has been discussed since early 20th century up to date- in the light of this debate, here is what I see as “flawed” in this text. the main question : assuming there is a point in the area of climate change and biology etc as the author points it out ; In what way a “scientific” social sciences (according to the author’s vision of social sciences that is not different from natural sciences) would prevent politicians from doing what they do? It is not fair to focus on some examples that seem to fit the author’s line of argument and exclude examples that do not. It should be noted here that the “scientism” of the logical positivists or logical empricisits of Vienna circle in the early 20th century, did not prevent the emergence of Nazi and fascist movement which gave rise to the world wars 1 and 2 .To the contrary, it is the recognition that science should not only be contextualized but also should have some ethical and critical dimensions (for example Frankfurt critical theory and later postmodern thinking ) that led social scientists to take side in political realms : Sartre, Foucault, and later Habermas, Chomsky, etc…. in battles like equality, social justice, the protection of the rights of minorities, etc. there are plenty of articles about how the “dogmatic” way of doing sciences in “ neutral way” –in fact not that neutral- have legitimized horrifying things, for example Kevin Cokley and Germine H. Awad at the University of Texas outline the reasons that made the quantitative methods seem oppressive and antiethical- which is not obviously true, but they make the point about why this biased view was so widespread in the past: “ Why have quantitative methods been viewed by some as oppressive and antithetical to the pursuit of social justice? Perhaps the most poignant example of the egregious violations to human rights and social justice was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study conducted with 399 African Americans in Alabama from 1932 to 1972. These individuals were not treated for syphilis in the hopes of understanding the long-term effects of the disease (Cozby, 2004, Reverby, 2000). Because these disenfranchised individuals were harmed in the name of science, the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research was formed and produced the Belmont Report in 1979. (Gould, 1996). http://www.psysr.org/jsacp/Cokley-V5N2-13_26-41.pdf
    For the postmodern critique, as I was reading an article recently on how postmodern see poverty- http://cstpr.colorado.edu/students/envs_5720/yapa_1996.pdf- I found this interesting idea that postmodern is not a unique movement, it includes at least two:
    “” the skeptical who are very close to Nietzsche ‘s philosophy , they have a gloomy vision of the world, they practice a politics of despair, they speak of the death of the subject/author (the power of the knowing subject) , for them knowledge is impossible, and thus social sciences should be abolished.
    Another group have a more hopeful position, they share the same skepticism about the possibility of “science” to provide solutions, but they take ethical sides and make normative choices, and they don’t give up – they adopt the deconstruction approach of reality (Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard…etc) …
    The article sums up that the confusion between these two that led to a very negative view of the postmodern thinking…..””” . So while, it is commendable to stick to a rigorous methodology of practicing social sciences to differentiate it from the everyday life (highly interested) language, it is not helpful to take us back to the debate of early 20th century.
    I like the how the book on philosophies of social sciences – Philosophies of Social Science, the Classic And Contemporary Readings, Edited by Gerard Delanty & Piet Strydom. Open University Press 2003 – summarized the major epistemic shifts during the 20th century: the logical shift, the linguistic shifts (which included the structuralism school) , the historical-cultural shift, and finally the cognitive shift. The latter was presented by the authors as the one where the focus is no longer put on ontology in its traditional meaning (certain form of reality on which a certain epistemology is based) but on the various forms of emergent “reals” – thus the focus is on knowledge, and the most important thing is to develop knowledge using different methodologies and more importantly a multidisciplinary approach where the focus is on solving the problems and not on the disputes between how each epistemology claims to have the best way of knowing the objects, and hence , impose a solution that is consistent with their own vision……

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  16. >>>what is decided using the veil of ignorance thought experiment are “ought” statements based on rational discourse.<<>>what is fair is determined by rational discourse …<<<

    Not *determined* by rational discourse but *informed* by rational discourse. How does one even *define* "fairness" except using human preference? Two options are "fair" if humans would be ok with either.

    That indeed is the whole point of Rawls, it says that what is fair is how humans would balance the scales if they didn't know which of the two they would get. Thus Rawls is indeed founding morality in human *preference*! (But not "mere" preference!)

    On your last point, I still don't see that whether "fairness" matters can be anything other than a human opinion. Yes, they may accept that one person has some advantage in some regard, but presumably want some trade-off for that in some other way?

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  17. Here’s another reply: Suppose I assert: “Rawls is wrong, things should be unfair, Fred should have ten times the benefits and advantages of Joe in all things. I declare this to be moral by fiat”.

    Please refute that claim using rational discourse alone — with no reference to any human feeling, preference or opinion, either about the claim or about any situation consequent to it.

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  18. >>>Not *determined* by rational discourse but *informed* by rational discourse. How does one even *define* “fairness” except using human preference? Two options are “fair” if humans would be ok with either.<<>>On your last point, I still don’t see that whether “fairness” matters can be anything other than a human opinion. Yes, they may accept that one person has some advantage in some regard, but presumably want some trade-off for that in some other way?<<<

    I’m addressing the question of can there be an objective set of rules that we would all in fact rationally uphold. I think Rawl’s thought experiment meets that criteria, not based on mere opinion but based on rational discourse.

    Now if we shift to the question of what in fact people will consider fair based on their opinions, that’s neither here or there. They can have their opinions but it’s not morally justified unless they can defend it in the though experiment. This also doesn’t address moral motivation, whether people would in fact want to adhere to the rule. Think of the comparison of healthy food. We can determine what is health but that doesn’t speak to whether or not a person in fact will either want to be health or actually engage in healthy behaviors. In fact, most people go for the cake, full well knowing the cake is unhealthy. However, the people going for the cake doesn't’ change the healthy status of the cake, similarly engaging in immoral behavior doesn’t change the moral status of said action/person.

    If your interested in where we should draw the moral motivation, we can point to legal and ethic systems (as well as many others, like education) that we have in place. Its’ not surprising at all that people find being moral difficult and it often conflicts with self-fish reasons. The social contract however offers justification for the moral system, by which society is justified in setting boundaries that if crossed, people will be held responsible for (Note I’m not claiming societies do this perfectly).

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  19. This got cut from my other message but this should have been on top of the other:
    >>>Not *determined* by rational discourse but *informed* by rational discourse. How does one even *define* “fairness” except using human preference? Two options are “fair” if humans would be ok with either.<<<

    I’m not sure what you mean by defining it in terms of human preference? The dictionary definition is vague at best but doesn’t refer to preferences.
    “the state, condition, or quality of being fair, or free from bias or injustice; evenhandedness”

    Now we could define fair as whatever the preferences of people are but that’s to the concept that Rawls is putting forward. Rawls is saying what is fair, just and moral is what is decided rationally behind a veil of ignorance. If here by preference you mean that people would prefer one rational argument over another, I can see that but that’s more a dispute over the rationality of an argument, not a preference. The preference “I want twice as much as everyone else” could be expressed but in the thought experiment, unless it can be justified, it won’t be considered as a moral rule.

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  20. >>>Rawls is saying what is fair, just and moral is what is decided rationally behind a veil of ignorance.<<<

    Not at all! The decision cannot be purely "rational", since such a negotiation can only be based on people's desires and value judgments. You then have a trade-off between different desires and valued outcomes — and the veil of ignorance weighs the competing desires equitably. But the whole thing is still rooted in human preferences and feelings; how could it not be?

    To make this concrete, suppose A's cow is accidentally killed by B, and A seeks financial compensation. This negotiation is predicated on the fact that a live cow is valuable (= humans value it, or its products) and so is money. Without the preference for money over not-money why would there even be a negotiation?

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  21. >>>Here’s another reply: Suppose I assert: “Rawls is wrong, things should be unfair, Fred should have ten times the benefits and advantages of Joe in all things. I declare this to be moral by fiat”. Please refute that claim using rational discourse alone — with no reference to any human feeling, preference or opinion, either about the claim or about any situation consequent to it.<<>>Not at all! The decision cannot be purely “rational”, since such a negotiation can only be based on people’s desires and value judgments. You then have a trade-off between different desires and valued outcomes — and the veil of ignorance weighs the competing desires equitably. But the whole thing is still rooted in human preferences and feelings; how could it not be?<<>>To make this concrete, suppose A’s cow is accidentally killed by B, and A seeks financial compensation. This negotiation is predicated on the fact that a live cow is valuable (= humans value it, or its products) and so is money. Without the preference for money over not-money why would there even be a negotiation?<<<

    You can simply ask the question in more abstract, mainly “if something that a person values is destroyed/killed by another person by accident, what ought we do as a result?”. We don’t need to specify exactly what people value. In the though experiment, we have to be careful that we are asking the right questions to make sure you are getting at the root of the issue.

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  22. >>>Here’s another reply: Suppose I assert: “Rawls is wrong, things should be unfair, Fred should have ten times the benefits and advantages of Joe in all things. I declare this to be moral by fiat”. Please refute that claim using rational discourse alone — with no reference to any human feeling, preference or opinion, either about the claim or about any situation consequent to it.<<<

    I addressed this with my distinction between moral rules and moral motivation. However, more to your point here though, the hypothetical person here has not given me any reasons, just simply stated his or her view so I’d have to ask for more information. Perhaps they have some reasons. However, I’d imagine your trying to prop up a person who just thinks their own views are right and they just believe that no matter what. There are two responses here, for the Rawls experiment, this is irrelevant because the question is not what in fact people will endorse but what rational rules will be picked in the thought experiment. As such, people expressing beliefs that are irrational simply are wrong.
    The person is free to continue to deny it but believe it or not, there are people out there that deny science too. They say “I believe in God” or “magic exists”, etc. Nothing you can say, no amount of empirical evidence you provide can change their view (think Ken Ham). Does that show that science is just mere opinion, for anyone to deny at their whims and undermine it’s credibility? Hardly, same is true for rationality. The existence of irrational people does not negative the existence of rationality.

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  23. >>>Not at all! The decision cannot be purely “rational”, since such a negotiation can only be based on people’s desires and value judgments. You then have a trade-off between different desires and valued outcomes — and the veil of ignorance weighs the competing desires equitably. But the whole thing is still rooted in human preferences and feelings; how could it not be?<<>>To make this concrete, suppose A’s cow is accidentally killed by B, and A seeks financial compensation. This negotiation is predicated on the fact that a live cow is valuable (= humans value it, or its products) and so is money. Without the preference for money over not-money why would there even be a negotiation?<<<

    You can simply ask the question in more abstract, mainly “if something that a person values is destroyed/killed by another person by accident, what ought we do as a result?”. We don’t need to specify exactly what people value. In the though experiment, we have to be careful that we are asking the right questions to make sure you are getting at the root of the issue.

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  24. I was fascinated by the idea that postmodern academics had backed off a bit, and I looked at your Ref. 10. It was fine at first, but then Latour starts talking about Heidegger’s distinction between objects and things, and has a series of diagrams whose components aren’t clearly labeled. For example,

    “My point is thus very simple: things have become Things again, objects have reentered the arena, the Thing, in which they have to be gathered first in order to exist later as what stands apart.”

    This didn’t really make me confident that critical theory is on sounder epistemological grounds than it used to be.

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  25. I am not very highly educated in philosophy (unfortunately), but I think the problem of skeptical regress is one which makes me give at least some credence to relativism of the kind in which the claim is that although there are truths, we can never be sure.

    In classical foundationalism, we start with a set of properly basic beliefs and the truth of all the propositions in the derived system depend on the truth of those beliefs. But, a properly basic belief, as far as I can see, seems to be *just* as epistemologically justified as its negation. (If there were a justification, it wouldn’t be called a basic belief. Sure, people use things like “warrant” to justify a belief until they encounter a defeater, but that doesn’t satisfy me.

    For example, I believe that the external world is real and I am not a brain-in-a-vat (or any such equivalent scenario isn’t true.) As much as I’ve tried to read, I have never found a compelling argument against it. Everything I experience is consistent with a brain-in-a-vat scenario. Also, I’m not in a position to place a probability on the hypothesis “I’m a brain-in-a-vat” because the background knowledge that I possess all comes from assuming the world I experience is real in the first place and is inadmissible. So, I just assume that the world is real for mere convenience. But, that’s just a *practical* reason not an epistemic one. (Similarly, the silly suggestions like “if you are a brain in a vat, go stand in front of a train” provide practical reasons!)

    Similar is the case with induction. Counter-induction is just as reasonable to assume and work upon. Now, note that the truth of all those things we call “scientific facts” depend upon the infallibility of the basic or foundational beliefs undergirding our belief systems. The only rational stance seems to me to be global skepticism. But, if one doesn’t like that, any internally consistent and logically coherent system is just as good as any other. That is how it seems to me.

    (I’m not a philosophy major and if there’s anything wrong with my line of reasoning, please do tell.)

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  26. Correction: “As much as I’ve tried to read, I have never found a compelling argument against it” is
    actually
    “As much as I’ve tried to read, I have never found a compelling argument against the proposition that I’m a brain in a vat

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  27. Hi imzasirf:

    I’m still baffled as to why you think Rawls’s analysis crosses over from the descriptive to the normative. It still seems to me that a human *preference* is always needed to do that.

    The Rawls analysis is easily understood by young children. E.g. Alex gets to cut the cake in two, Ben picks which half he gets. But the whole thing is still rooted in human preference (for a big slice of cake).

    Re my Fred v Joe example. I’m not sure I understand your response. The speaker is not offering reasons for it; there are no reasons, he is simply declaring it moral by fiat.

    Your task is to refute it by rational reasoning alone, with no reference to any human opinion, feeling or preference.

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  28. Coel, you said:
    “Re my Fred v Joe example. I’m not sure I understand your response. The speaker is not offering reasons for it; there are no reasons, he is simply declaring it moral by fiat.”

    Coal, I’m not sure where the difficulty is in the above case. If Fred was to declare that science is wrong and he simply declares it so by fiat, it doesn’t effect science at all (and again there are people that do this). Similarly, it makes no sense why Fred declaring something moral by fiat would be taken seriously either.

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  29. We can show that Fred’s claim “science is wrong” is wrong by empirical evidence. Afterall, match to empirical evidence is all that science claims, and thus a match to empirical evidence is sufficient to show that the claim “science is wrong” is wrong.

    Now, suppose Fred declares, by fiat, “this is moral” about the above Fred v Joe situation. How do you show that that is wrong? You seem to be claiming that it can be shown wrong by rational discourse. OK, go on then, show it is wrong.

    I assert that moral claims are only ever claims about human feeling and preference, and thus you cannot rationally show that Fred’s claim is “wrong”. One can, though, report that ” feels that it is wrong”.

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  30. >>>We can show that Fred’s claim “science is wrong” is wrong by empirical evidence. Afterall, match to empirical evidence is all that science claims, and thus a match to empirical evidence is sufficient to show that the claim “science is wrong” is wrong.<<>>Now, suppose Fred declares, by fiat, “this is moral” about the above Fred v Joe situation. How do you show that that is wrong? You seem to be claiming that it can be shown wrong by rational discourse. OK, go on then, show it is wrong.<<>>I assert that moral claims are only ever claims about human feeling and preference, and thus you cannot rationally show that Fred’s claim is “wrong”. One can, though, report that ” feels that it is wrong”.<<<

    Perhaps that is the disagreement, you keep "asserting" that moral claims are feelings and preferences. Sure you can define morality to be such, I can define morality as whatever Fred says it is. But that is not the notion of morality I'm talking about, I think personal preferences and feelings are just that, personal preferences and feelings. Morality on the other hand are rules of how we ought to live among each other. As such, morals are the rules we would give to one another under the veil of ignorance and if we were to take on rational discourse.

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  31. >>>We can show that Fred’s claim “science is wrong” is wrong by empirical evidence. Afterall, match to empirical evidence is all that science claims, and thus a match to empirical evidence is sufficient to show that the claim “science is wrong” is wrong.<<<

    Well Fred can say I don't care about empirical evidence, God put that evidence there to make it seem like there is empirical proof but it's not real. Fred doesn't even have to go that far, he can just say I don't care what empirical evidence you provide, I don't believe in that. To me, the same question is being asked for the moral case, Fred is simply irrational and unreasonable person (see my response below) and even if we could never convince him, it doesn't effect the status of science or rationality.

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  32. >>>Now, suppose Fred declares, by fiat, “this is moral” about the above Fred v Joe situation. How do you show that that is wrong? You seem to be claiming that it can be shown wrong by rational discourse. OK, go on then, show it is wrong.<<<

    Now we are getting somewhere. So Fred has made a claim and now we can ask, on what basis is the claim wrong or right? If it's an empirical claim, we would require empirical evidence. If it's a non-empirical claim, as in this case of morals, it's a rational claim. As such, we can analyze the claim made by Fred on it's rationality within the thought experiment. Behind the veil of ignorance, it's easy to see why Fred's opinion that he or anyone should just get more than others for no reason besides the fact that he claims he's should is irrational. There is no reason provided at all, hence it's not making the case.

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  33. >>>I think personal preferences and feelings are just that, personal preferences and feelings.<<>>Morality on the other hand are rules of how we ought to live among each other.<<>>As such, morals are the rules we would give to one another under the veil of ignorance and if we were to take on rational discourse.<<<

    That ("… *would* give …") is purely descriptive, not normative.

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  34. >>>Well Fred can say I don’t care about empirical evidence …<<<

    Sure he can say that, he can say that he doesn't care about science or evidence. That doesn't stop science's claims about empirical reality being correct (= correctly matching empirical reality).

    While we do have a way of showing Fred's empirical claims to be wrong, you have no equivalent way of showing his moral claims to be "wrong".

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  35. >>>If it’s a non-empirical claim, as in this case of morals, it’s a rational claim.<<<

    Sorry, that is entirely begging the question! I refuse to assent to that claim. (I assert that, in the case of morals, claims are about human feelings and opinions.)

    Thus, to defend your argument, you first have to show that "moral" claims are "rational" claims.

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  36. I’m not sure what exactly you think I’m begging the question on. It’s also not a matter of your assent having any particular validity here, you have to actually show me an argument for your assertion, just as those who deny science have to provide their arguments otherwise we can safely ignore such people. Simply denying it doesn’t make it false.
    Moreover, we seem to be sliding into a difference in our fundamental definition of what morality is. If we both define morality as two different things, we are talking about two different things but calling it the same. In other words, your saying apples are delicious and I’m saying I don’t care about apples, I’m talking about oranges. Apples maybe delicious, I’m not concerned about them. We could go and change the meaning of morality to fit your definition but I don’t see why we should, we would just need to invent a new word for rational discourse on how we ought to behave towards one another.
    As for moral claims being rational claims, morality is applied rationality to social issues. If you want to be ask the broader question of why be rational or if we have any reason at all to behave one way or the other, that is a whole different matter.

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  37. Yes, we may be talking passed each other because we conceive of morality very differently.

    >>>We could go and change the meaning of morality to fit your definition …<<>>As for moral claims being rational claims, morality is applied rationality to social issues.<<<

    So you assert. Now produce a good argument to back up that assertion.

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  38. >>>Yes, we may be talking passed each other because we conceive of morality very differently.
    So you assert. Now produce a good argument to back up that assertion.<<<

    Coel, I think at this point we are in large agreement. You can refer to morality as personal opinion and preferences. Interesting as those are, I’m more interested in applied rationality to social problems so I define morality as such.

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  39. But you defining morality that way is merely your personal preference. 🙂

    Anyhow, you cannot get by with rationality *alone*, you can only apply rationality to human preferences. People need to like and want some things, and dislike other things, in order for there to be anything to discuss or apply rationality to.

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  40. >>>But you defining morality that way is merely your personal preference. :-)<<<

    I'm defining it that way because I'm interested in the topic of how rationality applies to social issues, as opposed to your definition, which defines it as opinions and preferences (a topic that is not interesting to me for this discussion). It's a matter of clarifying what topic we are discussing. So in a sense, I do have a preference of discussing one topic rather than the other, which doesn't speak to whether or not we could apply rationality to social issues. This is merely semantics. I can define healthy as whatever people want to eat but that doesn't really advance my discussion of what is healthy, just makes me have to create new word for what I use to refer to as healthy.

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  41. >>>Anyhow, you cannot get by with rationality *alone*, you can only apply rationality to human preferences. People need to like and want some things, and dislike other things, in order for there to be anything to discuss or apply rationality to.<<<

    True, for rationality to be applied to social issues, the social issues have to a matter of concern. That's why I stated the social contract doesn't apply to those who "live in nature". However, for those who do live in society, it does apply. This goes from long way of actual morality being mere opinion or preferences, it still comes down to what you can rationally defend, not simple assert your preference.

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  42. “One corollary of the critical spirit is fallibilism: namely, the understanding that all our empirical knowledge is tentative, incomplete and open to revision in the light of new evidence or cogent new arguments”

    I cheers this sentiment! A reminder that mistakes are not so much a problem in science but a crucial part of the process.

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  43. I use the terms “factual matters” or “questions of fact” simply to denote questions about the real world (e.g. What is the weather today in New York? How many Africans were enslaved by Europeans in the period 1450-1900? What is the mass of the Higgs boson? etc) and to distinguish them from questions of ethics, aesthetics, etc. — since the latter pose very different epistemological problems, which are beyond the scope of my essay (as well as beyond my competence) to discuss.

    Of course, some philosophers consider ethical questions to be matters of fact; I am using the term “factual matters” more narrowly. Likewise, I am focusing on questions about the real world, not questions of pure logic or pure mathematics.

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  44. Yes, of course I see ethics as an extremely important part of any sensible worldview, and I do not consider it to be *merely* a personal preference. Indeed, as I say at the beginning of Part III of this essay, my concern that public debate be grounded in the best available evidence is, above all else, ethical. Rather, I have taken pains to distinguish clearly between factual matters and ethical matters because the epistemological issues they raise are so different; and I have restricted my discussion almost entirely to factual matters, simply because of the limitations of my own competence. (I do not claim to have well-thought-out views about the philosophical foundations of ethics.)

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