Philosophy, science and expertise

expertiseby Mark English

Let me make a very simple — and, I hope, uncontroversial — point about expertise and authority before looking at some questions pertaining to the current (increasingly bitter) debate about the nature and status of philosophy and its relation to the sciences.

Expertise implies epistemic authority: the expert — by definition — speaks with authority within his or her area of expertise. If the expertise is recognized, the authority automatically follows and doesn’t have to be claimed or argued for.

But the word “expertise” normally applies only to reasonably narrow, clearly defined and recognized areas of knowledge, theoretical or practical. And general philosophy (encompassing all the traditional sub-disciplines) is just too broad and ill-defined for the word to apply in any natural or straightforward sense. Its meaning must be, as it were, stretched to fit.

There is even disagreement about what philosophy is about — or if it is about anything at all.

Some see it as the normative study of rationality. But it is simply not plausible in my view that philosophy (or any single discipline) could effectively encompass the entire realm of reason or rationality. Logic perhaps, but reason is a much broader concept.

Massimo Pigliucci prefers to see philosophy as being concerned with the exploration of conceptual as distinct from empirical space (the sciences being focused on the latter)[1]. But, again, conceptual space is just too vast an area to be subsumed by any one discipline. Besides, unconstrained by empirical (or mathematical) considerations, conceptual space is really not all that interesting. And of course, the sciences are just as much about model-building (i.e., exploring conceptual space) as they are about empirical evidence; and mathematics is pretty much all about exploring conceptual spaces of certain kinds.

If philosophy had a center or a core sub-discipline things might be different. Arguably metaphysics once played this role. And, in the middle years of the 20th century, a humbler, scaled-down version of philosophy focusing on logic and science prevailed and appeared to many to be viable. It may still be viable.

But there is as I see it a problem for academic philosophy as it is currently constituted (even apart from the various well-known and long-standing internal disagreements and divisions about the nature of the subject). However you look at it — and even limiting the picture to analytic philosophy — the loose amalgam of disciplines and activities which goes under the name of philosophy in academic contexts is not and is no longer generally perceived as a unified area of activity or knowledge.

So it is no surprise that general philosophy and philosophers in general are losing authority and status, even as certain sub-disciplines of philosophy — notably those with a scientific focus, like the philosophy of physics for example — manage to thrive.

In other words, in areas where the philosophizing is tightly constrained by a clearly specifiable body of scientific (or similar) knowledge to which the word “expertise” can be naturally applied, insidious questions about authority or status simply do not arise.

Earlier this year I wrote a piece expressing doubts — based largely on historical factors concerning how the nature of philosophy has changed over time and its links with religion — about philosophy’s future viability as a stand-alone, secular academic discipline [2]. And though my claims about philosophy’s historical and continuing dependence on religious ideas were understandably contested by many, the main thrust of what I was saying — concerning the crisis of identity and credibility facing philosophy — was not, I would have thought, particularly controversial. Many within and outside of the discipline take a similar line.

For example, after my essay appeared, Laurie Shrage’s ideas on a more empirically informed philosophy were brought to my attention. Though her background and general perspective are very different from mine, she also recognizes the huge problems which academic philosophy is facing and tends to see them in surprisingly similar terms. Shrage looks at the way the discipline has developed historically and acknowledges its sometimes surprising links with religion [3]. Her approach is refreshingly pragmatic, down to earth and open to what other disciplines — notably history and the social sciences — may be able to contribute to a new model of philosophy.

Other philosophers — most notably perhaps Richard Rorty, Paul Horwich and Peter Unger — have taken their cue from the later writings of Wittgenstein. Though there are marked differences between their views — between Rorty’s (very negative) and Unger’s (positive) attitude towards science, for example — all three men share the view that analytic philosophy as it has been and is still largely being practiced is profoundly misguided. Rorty’s views have been elaborated at length (for example, in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) and are well known. Horwich set out his position very concisely in a piece published last year by the New York Times entitled, “Was Wittgenstein right?” [4]. And lately Unger has come out with a surprisingly blunt and scathing assessment of analytic philosophy. He too traces his basic ideas back to Wittgenstein.

“In a way, all I’m doing,” says Unger, “is detailing things that were already said aphoristically by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations” [5]. He sees the only real hope for the discipline as lying in the direction of collaboration with the various sciences.

Unger’s approach is somewhat abrasive, but at least he draws attention to what is a real and ongoing problem. All too often philosophy’s defenders see no problem; or, if they see it, they think that acknowledging it will only give comfort to their detractors. For example, a commenter at Scientia Salon spoke (seriously, I think) about Unger having “gone over to the dark side” and others have spoken in similar terms. Such “them and us,” Manichean-sounding talk and thinking signals that philosophy has become for some less an intellectual discipline than a kind of religion or ideology.

Such approaches often involve inflated claims, and it is just not possible nowadays to articulate a broad and ambitious vision of philosophy which will be persuasive to a wider audience. Stirring rhetoric about philosophy’s intellectual grandeur and moral importance won’t get you anywhere. In fact, you could make a pretty good case that it’s precisely this grand, over-reaching, overblown view of philosophy which more than anything else is bringing it down.

Massimo Pigliucci’s contributions to this debate are neither Manichean nor merely rhetorical. He is seeking on this site — and, I understand, in a forthcoming book — to mount a rational and coherent defense of a very broad and, in effect, traditional view of the subject (incorporating ethics and standard metaphysics, for example), but I have the sense that such a line is not only in tension but also in conflict with his other main preoccupation: namely, to bring philosophy and the sciences closer together.

He believes that this rapprochement can happen even as philosophy continues to assert its status as an independent and so, in a sense, unified discipline. My view is that this unity and independence are not sustainable — but that this does not greatly matter because the most worthwhile philosophizing is focused closely on particular (usually scientific) areas of knowledge and inquiry and engaged in by those with appropriate levels of expertise in the areas in question.

It’s also worth noting that the very spectacle of scholars devoting a lot of time and effort to trying to define and defend their discipline is a sure sign that all is not well with the discipline in question.

But the signs are not all negative. As I have suggested, positive lessons can be drawn from the fact that there is far less controversy about the worthwhileness of science-oriented philosophizing than about more general and scientifically (or mathematically) unconstrained approaches. Does this not point the way to a brighter future — as well as signaling that empirically and mathematically unconstrained approaches may need to be jettisoned?

On the border lies some technical philosophy which engages closely with formal logic, and so is logically — though not empirically — constrained. I am thinking of the sort of metaphysics engaged in by Timothy Williamson or David Lewis and their respective followers, which has led to some good things but also to a lot of (in my view) meaningless speculation — as well as to the articulation of some pretty dubious ideas (such as modal realism, for instance). There have been useful contributions to work in linguistics (model-theoretic semantics, for instance), but I remain very skeptical of the value of any metaphysically-oriented work which is disconnected from empirical science.

Other types of philosophizing based on informal reasoning about science-fiction-like thought experiments — Twin Earth or zombie or brain-in-a-vat talk, for example — may be seen as empirically constrained to some extent, but its problem also is that it does not engage closely enough with real science. What this means is that the issues are often simply not resolvable in the terms in which they have been presented. Thought experiments just become talking points or discussion generators in the absence of any real — or at least prospective — engagement with actual science.

But what I want to focus on here is the issue of philosophers engaging in non-technical writing on general topics. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, of course. Anyone should be allowed to express their views on questions of general interest. But my question is: what is it that philosophers bring to this sort of writing as philosophers? In other words, what kinds of general problems are philosophers really equipped to address, and on what basis?

I recall a seminar I attended in which a philosopher, someone with real expertise in ancient Greek language and culture and ancient philosophy generally, read a paper in which he applied Aristotelian concepts to the question of sexual perversion. His focus was not historical, however, but rather on what Aristotle might teach us on the matter. During the coffee break, chatting to the woman (a non-philosopher) sitting next to me, I expressed the view that modern psychology might be able to throw a little more light on these matters than Aristotle. She sagely agreed. (I only found out later that she was the speaker’s wife.)

This sort of thing, philosophers implicitly or explicitly claiming expertise in areas beyond their real areas of knowledge — usually on the basis that the topic is an ethical or a metaphysical one, and ethics and metaphysics are a part of philosophy — is widespread.

Let me just mention, by way of example, three books by philosophers on general topics which have prompted (I think appropriate) skeptical responses.

One is the book The Meaning of Disgust by Colin McGinn [6]. McGinn actually has a solid background in psychology but he gave it all up for a very old-fashioned, metaphysical version of philosophy. He was one of philosophy’s stars in the late 20th century and most famous for presenting, in a clear and accessible style, arguments that certain problems in philosophy — like consciousness and free will — are real problems, but problems that we are simply incapable of answering because of the limitations of our brains. In The Meaning of Disgust he seeks — believing as he does that all philosophy is logic (or the a priori analysis of concepts) — to isolate (by thinking very hard) the essence of disgust (whatever that might be). His approach is a mix of conceptual analysis, phenomenology, confronting rhetoric and self-indulgent psychological and metaphysical speculation. McGinn totally ignores the extensive body of science on the topic. The best that can be said of the book is that it elicited some gloriously scathing reviews [7].

The second book I will mention is Thomas Nagel’s notorious Mind and Cosmos [8]. As in the McGinn case, there has been so much savage criticism of the book that I will not add to it, except to say that Nagel’s self-confessed ignorance about evolutionary biology, physics and other sciences relevant to his themes does tend to undermine his credibility from the outset.

It might be objected that philosophers themselves have turned on McGinn and Nagel, essentially ostracizing them.

But the fact remains that Nagel and McGinn were both leading lights in later 20th-century philosophy and their work is deeply interwoven into the major debates of that time. Further, the roots of their current ideas are clearly visible in their early, more respected work.

The third book is by someone who, in his earlier philosophical writings engaged with the ideas of both McGinn and Nagel. A.C. Grayling’s recent work, Friendship is a rather rambling essay on the subject [9]. Grayling draws on selected philosophers and writers, but the selection of authors is arbitrary and the work is shaped by the author’s (necessarily limited) perspective and includes reflections on his own personal experiences [10].

It is not a bad book — certainly not embarrassingly bad or as flawed as the other two I mentioned. And Grayling is yet (so far as I know) to stumble intellectually or professionally and face the wrath of his colleagues. But this pedestrian little pot-boiler on friendship provides yet another example of a leading philosophical light exposing the — how shall I put it? — ordinariness of his insights on a general topic.

It seems to me that if you are writing seriously about a topic like friendship, broadly speaking you have three main options: a history-based approach, a science-based approach (social psychology, evolutionary psychology, etc.), or an intuitive, “writerly” approach. Grayling explicitly renounces the first two:

“Note that this is not a history of friendship, not a sociological or psychological treatise on friendship … [R]ather it is a discussion of the idea of friendship, a philosophical (in the broadest sense) exploration of views about it”[11].

Philosophical in the broadest sense: what does this mean exactly?

Grayling tries to explain, but in effect concedes that there is a lack of intellectual rigor: “I range widely through philosophical, historical and literary sources for my materials, not methodically and systematically, but as occasion and need suggest. As when sinking one’s instruments into ocean currents at various places, one eventually gets a sense of their drift: that has been a part of the technique here” [12].

Despite the attempt to liken his explorations to those of an oceanographer, the comparison is not convincing. In fact the simile is utterly literary and I would characterize Grayling’s general approach here as literary-philosophical [13]. And, judged in these terms, the work fails to impress.

Many writers have said interesting or challenging things about friendship — and Grayling quotes some of them (Oscar Wilde, for example, who defined a friend as someone who stabs you in the front). But without some kind of intellectual framework to provide rigor and coherence or a strong perspective to provide subtlety and depth, what one is left with is superficial and unsatisfactory and uncomfortably close to desk-calendar wisdom.

True essayists or fiction writers can — like Proust for example (whom Grayling doesn’t mention) — challenge our ideas of friendship in subtle and serious ways that Grayling’s approach misses entirely. Not only does he fail to bring to the subject any original thoughts of his own, he fails (in my opinion) as a guide to the most worthwhile and original thoughts of others.

Grayling had the option, presumably, of taking a more rigorously historical or scientific approach. But he chose instead to play the role of the philosophically-oriented man of letters, an approach which is both difficult to play well and — whether played well or not — guaranteed to annoy people of certain types and temperaments. As my mother used to say: “Tell me something I don’t know why don’t you!”

So, overall, it seems to me that philosophy and philosophers are trading on the past glories of the subject, as well as on misunderstandings on the part of sections of the general public concerning what words like “philosophy” and “metaphysics” might signify. Peter Unger makes the point rather poignantly.

Characterizing (quite plausibly in my opinion) most contemporary metaphysics, as well as “some epistemology, a fair amount of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language” as being either parochial or trivial, he claims that potential students are in effect being misled or shortchanged.

“People who are signing up for philosophy don’t think they’re going to end up with this kind of stuff. They want to learn something about the ‘ultimate nature of reality,’ and their position in relation to it. And when you’re doing philosophy, you don’t have a prayer of offering even anything close to a correct or even intelligible answer to any of these questions” [14].

Behind Unger’s remarks is an awareness of the disappointment and disillusionment that many students experience when they take their first courses in philosophy and realize what thin gruel most of it really is. I personally have found myself in the position of trying to justify the discipline to skeptical students [15]. (My usual line was to try to get them to see philosophy more in terms of the history of ideas, emphasizing the importance of knowing something about the way our cultures and our science have developed over time.)

Given that — whatever happens to philosophy departments — meta-questions relating to the sciences and other disciplines will continue to be addressed by practitioners of those disciplines, why does it matter so much to some that philosophy should survive as an independent discipline?

It may be that many of philosophy’s defenders are motivated by a belief in the need for a synoptic view.

There’s no doubt that an integrated approach to knowledge and understanding can be valuable, providing stability and a broad framework for thinking. And there is no doubt that religion and philosophy were once able to provide such frameworks. (Whether the frameworks were soundly based is another question, of course.) Religion still does play this role for some, but philosophy not so much.

Again, questions of expertise and authority arise here. Who these days (apart from religious leaders) would presume to offer a comprehensive intellectual framework? As I suggested above, I think the best we can do in the context of academic teaching is to point out how others have addressed these grand issues in the past. And such courses would perhaps be more appropriately designated intellectual history than philosophy.

What other reasons or motivations (apart from matters of material self-interest, self-image and identity) might people have for wanting to maintain philosophy as an independent discipline?

Ideological and moral motivations clearly play a part. Just as implicit religious, ideological, political and moral commitments lie behind and motivate particular philosophical views, so such commitments motivate particular views of philosophy. In fact, only the existence of such commitments could explain, in my opinion, the crusading passion which many bring to these debates.

I specifically singled out religious perspectives for attention in my earlier essay and there was — perhaps unsurprisingly — a high degree of hostility regarding my suggestion that philosophy has been dependent on religion in various and complex ways in the past and continues to be. Non-religious supporters of philosophy did not want to see their favored discipline as being in any way dependent on religion; and religious supporters of philosophy felt perhaps that only a discipline seen to be entirely free of religious presuppositions or influences could be used convincingly to defend a religious point of view.

Political and moral and other broadly ideological commitments are also in play, of course, and a broad-based, normatively-oriented version of philosophy is inevitably attractive to those who seek to influence the values and behaviors of others.

But perhaps even more important than specific political and moral commitments is a general conviction, almost religiously held in some quarters, that scientism (conceived as a too-narrowly-scientific view of the world) needs to be actively resisted, and that the arts and humanities — including philosophy — should play a central role here.

To the extent that I recognize the desirability of a respect for ideas, a sense of history and a broadly critical perspective, I’m on board. But seeing such qualities as being in any way dependent on the fortunes of a single academic discipline would be a mistake.

_____

Mark English has a background in the history of ideas, linguistics and philosophy. He has a PhD in philosophy from Monash University and he blogs at Language, Life and Logic.

[1] “Are you sure you have hands?” Scientia Salon, June 18, 2014.

[2] “Does philosophy have a future?” Scientia Salon, May 26, 2014.

[3] See, for example, her 2008 paper “Will philosophers study their history or become history?” Radical Philosophy Review 11(2): 27-52.

[4] Here is Horwich’s essay.

[5] From an interview with Unger at 3 Quarks Daily.

[6] Oxford University Press, 2011.

[7] Daniel Kelly’s review is relatively sober and restrained, but it effectively exposes the absurdity of McGinn’s approach to the question.

[8] Oxford University Press, 2012. Here is Nagel’s own summary of the basic thesis of the book.

[9] Yale University Press, 2013.

[10] Grayling’s sources reflect his classical and philosophical background; he virtually ignores modern literature.

[11] Grayling, op. cit., p.15.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Grayling could be seen as a modern incarnation of the 19th-century man of letters. I can think of a number of 20th-century English philosophers who played this kind of role (especially in their later years) or saw themselves in these terms. Bertrand Russell and A.J. Ayer were prominent examples, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Grayling saw himself as following in their footsteps.

[14] Unger, op. cit.

[15] I mean here students expressing doubts about the worthwhileness of the discipline, but it was often the case that these students were also religious skeptics. In my experience, students with religious affiliations are less inclined to question the discipline and are more likely to find it interesting — and challenging.

305 thoughts on “Philosophy, science and expertise

  1. Isn’t your response eliding that point?

    Evolution gave me the feeling that I’m not, so no, I don’t think so.

    Seriously, though. My point is that Coel’s explanation is ridiculously simplistic and doesn’t actually explain anything. I don’t know what there is to elide.

    Like

  2. I’m coming at this from a layperson’s perspective, Aravis, but I cannot understand why you believe Coel is “pontificating” for expressing his views on this forum and why you are so invariably snide in your responses to his comments. I understand you disagree with him, fine, but he didn’t drown your puppy for chrissakes.

    You write above “that virtually no one believes any more that linguistic competence with respect to a word involves grasping its definition.” How does that observation invalidate Coel’s response to the “is slavery wrong” question?

    Like

  3. It’s not clear what exactly Coel is saying, because he has a tendency to confuse the origin of X for the warrant for X. He did that with mathematics, and he is now doing for morality.

    Like

  4. Sounds like postmodernism is anathema? I disagree with postmodernism’s posthumanist conclusions since they appear to be unable to clean up their own mess. But I agree with their critique of classic Western philosophy – it has not given us the tools with which to solve our problems either, hence the circular arguments that ensue after opinions as proffered above.

    Like

  5. Coel is pulling the “meta-ethic” card to avoid talking about ethics.
    The general implication of Coel’s argument is that evolutionary biology and neuroscience will now give us our ethics, ethical philosophers can now go home (he’s worried that they’re going to pull some magic thing out of their hats that he won’t be able to understand).
    To be fair, some biologists and neurosciences do seem to be making cases that they can now resolve ethical problems. However, they are doing so within a field of already established ethical values, most of which they’re not questioning, hence much of what they argue for appears to be methodological approaches to systems already in place (e.g., Cashmore’s ‘fault-free’ justice system).
    To the extent they are bringing anything new to the table, it tends to sound banal and conciliatory (Harris’ ‘human flourishing).
    In any case they show a surprising political naivety. Getting a new ethical theory off the ground in the academy is difficult enough, but arguing for its acceptance to the point of enacting laws takes considerable proselytizing, activism and deal making.
    The 19th century saw new ethical theories popping up all over the place, since it was clear that the churches were no longer capable of addressing new knowledge, new technologies, and new human interests and activities (e.g., the rising demands for a woman’s rights).
    Most of those new ethical theories have disappeared, or become relegated to cult status. But some have proven durable, and not only have built up a considerable body of knowledge and well-defined argument, but also engage in quite lively debate and discussion with one another. Some of these discussions may indeed peter out as we discover we are discussing questions we no longer need to ask. But I suspect the strongest among them will adapt to changing conditions and survive.
    It’s a pity that some scientists and scientismists think they can crash the party and send everyone home because they (think they) have the answers. That has been tried before, and failed. Ethics involves shared values – informed by, but not reducible to, scientific discovery. And it is the nature of human experience, both individual and collective, that ethical decisions cannot await future scientific discovery.
    It might be argued that they can’t wait for ethical theorists’ discussions; but they already have. We learn potential ethical decision processes from birth; the sometimes contentious development of ethical theories forms a rich part of our cultural inheritance.
    I think what frustrates scientismists, at least in part, is that oft competing ethical theories have not coalesced into a single ‘theory of everything ethical.’ But they can’t Reality may be all one thing, but humans are not. Our diversity is difficult to explain, and difficult to address. It is this diversity that gives any study of ethics its fascination and liveliness. We may eventually be able to account for every force and field in the universe, but we will never be able to account for every human idiosyncrasy.

    Like

  6. Hi, John. These exchanges have been going on for sometime now on SciSal, so there is some frustration because many have tried to explain to Coel why his positions on ethical and aesthetic issues seem rather simplistic and unhelpful. If I remember correctly, Coel has described his position on these issues as related to emotivism, which some describe as the “yippee/boo” approach.

    So it’s not so much that some completely rule out the fact that emotional attitudes can and do play a role in such issues, but that they play the *only* role while failing to address the simple fact that people can and do change their beliefs in these areas for other than emotional reasons, for example, reasoned arguments concerning freedom when taking up the subject of slavery. In other words, some of us simply don’t see the fact of going from a “yippee” to a “boo” position as satisfactorily explained by emotivism alone.

    Because it seems to reduce such issues to emotional attitudes and preferences alone, It strikes many as counter productive particularly since it seems to undermine the activity of even engaging in commentary on such subjects.. ,

    Like

  7. John,
    Coel is not a social constructionist (and BTW I am). What he seems to be arguing is that a description of ethics can itself constitute ethics. This seems to suggest that actually engaging in a theory of ethics is pointless.

    Like

  8. I cannot understand why you believe Coel is “pontificating” for expressing his views on this forum and why you are so invariably snide in your responses to his comments.

    ——————–

    When a person goes out onto a discussion board, to discuss topics on which he has no expertise; stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that any others have expertise on those topics; denies that such expertise even exists; evinces an utter lack of interest in learning from anyone else; persists in refusing to engage the substance of counter arguments; repeatedly makes assertions on subjects that have been discussed at length in the literature, evincing a complete ignorance of that literature; when a person does that, he winds up hijacking every thread and turning it into a discussion about *him* (hence someone else’s joke about Scientia Salon turning into the “Coel Hellier” show).

    So, it is largely out of frustration — and one that not just I have expressed.

    Like

  9. How does that observation invalidate Coel’s response to the “is slavery wrong” question?

    ———————-

    Very simple. Coel said that he did not understand the sentence “Slavery is wrong.” I said that I was very sorry to hear that, but the rest of us do understand it. He then said that one cannot understand the sentence, unless one has a moral theory. To which I replied that he is appealing to a conception of linguistic competence — what it is to understand words and sentences — that virtually no one holds.

    Like

  10. John,
    Conversations with scientism defenders are uniquely frustrating because they not only make poor contributions to the the conversation but dont agree on terms to even *have* the conversation. Coel, in my view you are guilty, as Aravis has pointed out, of Calvin-ball like maneuvers. When the responses are closing in, its not uncommon to here that thats only what *we* mean by something or some such to hide the equivocations. When someone else is going to score a point, its easy enough to change the rules. Add to this an impressive sense having all the answers and a glib dismissal of an entire field some of us have put real work into training in, and yes tempers will flare. As Aravis points out philosophers are not paid the common respect of authority in their own discipline granted to nearly every other kind of academic. Is difficult to see how that could be infuriating?

    Remember also the stakes are high.And for Aravis and Massimo personal. Funding, and livelihoods, are threatened by the loose talk and easy conviction of many people who have not examined or researched their own opinions.

    Like

  11. I’m not familiar enough with the Twin Earth experiment or its history to comment on that, which Coel and Aravis have debated before in these comments.
    I will note that Coel seems to be saying that because the terms of the sentence (‘slavery is wrong’) cannot be (scientifically) verified, the sentence itself is meaningless; any opposition to slavery is a matter of (inherited) feelings expressed as opinion.
    But ‘wrong’ has social validity regardless of its scientific status. And Coel’s second point stands historically and anthropologically falsified (see my previous replies to Coel, above).
    This is not to say that we haven’t genetically inherited some sense that develops into ethical thought and behavior; but ethics cannot be reduced to this, or we’d all be practicing the same behaviors.

    Like

  12. hence someone else’s joke about Scientia Salon turning into the “Coel Hellier” show

    I said that to be humorous, but I can support it with empirical data.

    Like

  13. Coel,
    I’ve posted way too much in these comments, but I must admit that you have challenged me to clarify certain issues in my own mind, largely by persuading me not to adopt your perspective on these matters.
    I’ll try to be brief here:
    1: your understanding of evolution is over-simplified and in some degree incoherent.
    Our brains may be genetically programmed (although certainly not by any process of overlapping through oodles of history), in a way that promotes certain tendencies of behavior, but these do not translate into ethics until there is conscious decision making as to what we ought or ought not do. Even should decisions be determined in advance, as some claim, they need to be made, they don’t just happen.
    2. The human immune system is a bad analogy to questions of inherited behavior, because the body is a closed system and the environment we respond to is a relatively open system.
    3. Scientists cannot take the place of ethicists, because society itself is a relatively open and continually changing system.
    4. Certain ethical principles are simple (e.g., the golden rule), but no ethical theory is. On the other hand we have a number of verifiably coherent ethical theories that seem able to reach agreement on certain shared values in the process of discussion.
    5. As I noted to John Crossett, the sentence ‘slavery is wrong’ may lack scientific status, but it’s social status is clear and vouchsafed. Your insistence that the former negates the latter is pointless confusion of differing levels and means of determination.
    5. “[‘Slavery is wrong’] is a shorthand that refers back to some human’s dislike of slavery or its consequences” is not an answer to the question, it’s an evasion.
    5. I have already provided you with two answers as to why slavery is wrong, one from a Humean perspective, another from a Kantian perspective. There are others, and what is interesting is their agreement on shared values in this matter.
    6. As, again, I noted to John, your insistence that opposition to slavery is an opinion driven by inherited feeling stands historically and anthropologically falsified.
    7. Description of behavior cannot itself stand in for ethics.
    8. Rants against moral realism do not provide you with an argument for your position.
    9. “My scheme can account for why (many) humans *think* that “slavery is wrong”.” First, that’s not true; second, that’s not wanted. That is not itself an ethics.
    10. You have not, anywhere in any of your comments here, made a single statement about ethical behavior, or raised a single question concerning the ethics of human behavior.
    It is clear you do not have a theory of ethics, and what you offer cannot take the place of ethical theory.

    Like

  14. but dont agree on terms to even *have* the conversation.

    This is the key, IMO. I’m currently reading a book by the crack detective team Ladyman and Ross (It’s not a show, but it should be), and whether you agree with them or not, they can’t be accused of simply dismissing established philosophical terminology in metaphysics — or dismissing whole methodological approaches.

    An interesting question – to me – is: why is the response that @Coel gets here different than the response that, say, @tienzengong gets?

    Like

  15. I can only answer for myself. I usually do not really understand what @tienzengong is saying, well enough to comment. His posts tend to be highly technical, and I’ve never been particularly strong in engaging subjects at that technical of a level. As I’ve said, I do *not* speak to things that I don’t know anything about, and I have not felt competent to reply to @tienzengong’s posts.

    Like

  16. Wittgenstein on individuals like Coel:

    “People have sometimes said to me they cannot make any judgement about this
    or that because they have never learnt philosophy. This is irritating nonsense, it
    is being assumed that philosophy is some sort of science. And people speak of it
    as they might speak of medicine.–What one can say, however, is that people who
    have never carried out an investigation of a philosophical sort, like most
    mathematicians for instance, are not equipped with the right optical instruments
    for that sort of investigation or scrutiny. Almost, as someone who is not used to
    searching in the forest for berries will not find any because his eye has not been
    sharpened for such things & he does not know where you have to be particularly
    on the lookout for them. Similarly someone unpractised in philosophy passes by all
    the spots where difficulties lie hidden under the grass, while someone with
    practice pauses & senses that there is a difficulty here, even though he does not
    yet see it. And no wonder, if one knows how long even the practised investigator,
    who realizes there is a difficulty, has to search in order to find it.”

    Culture & Value, 33-34

    I think the point about respecting other people’s expertise and not polluting a thread with remarks on a practice one knows nothing about is absolutely correct. But the difficulties of responding to scientismists like Coel seem to go even deeper than just disciplinary disrespect. Coel not only has the wrong answers- he often can’t even notice the problem and so passes right by.

    Like

  17. Hi Aravis,

    I don’t mean to sound like a scold. I’m relatively new here, but it sometimes seems to me that there is a sort of collective confirmation bias at work hereabouts, in which people interpret Coel’s statements in the most uncharitable possible light and then glibly dismiss his assertions without attempting to explain (really *explain*) the nature of his putative errors. Perhaps you tried this before and have given it up as a bad job (I see from some of the surrounding comments — including your own about the linguistic competence issue (thanks) — that people are putting some meat on the bones of their disagreement with Coel). Yet as one who is arriving in the middle of this conversation and who often finds Coel’s perspective to be thought-provoking (but who openly concedes his ignorance of much of the literature you accuse Coel of ignoring) it occasionally sounds like bullying. Just something to bear in mind, for what you think it’s worth.

    Like

  18. You have to remember that many of us have been carrying out these arguments since the webzine started. We’ve all been around and around these issues with Cole more times than I could count.

    I understand that coming into the middle, it might seem the way that you describe, but surely, we can’t all start every conversation afresh, as if none of the others had passed before.

    That said, it’s pretty difficult for a philosopher–or any humanist–to bully a scientist. Their discipline holds all the political cards—and all the money—and ours holds little to none. It is our programs and departments that are constantly being threatened with the knife, not Cole’s. And it is my view that the constant drumbeat by scientists like Cole, against philosophy, has played a substantial role in the threats against philosophy and other humanities. So, indeed, I believe that he—and Krauss, and Dawkins, and the like–are doing active harm to our subjects, within the academy.

    Like

  19. John,
    Coel disputes every issue interminably and stubbornly to the point that one becomes afraid of making any comment because one will spend the next three days batting away his determined contradictions. No, he is not being bullied, he is being told the truth.

    Like

  20. Hi Aravis,

    Thanks for the reply. I didn’t read Coel’s comment as saying he failed to understand the *sentence* “slavery is wrong,” but rather that he didn’t understand how the word “wrong” was being used in that sentence. To me, he seemed to be getting at the idea that two people can honestly and coherently assert that “slavery is wrong” despite their disagreement as to whether the concept of “wrong” has *objective* meaning. So he just wanted the person to whom he was responding to specify which sense of “wrong” he meant.

    But I could be wrong. Or not. It depends.

    Like

  21. Hi Aravis,

    I think there is a more charitable way to interpret this. It’s just like when I said I don’t know what you mean by “reference”.

    Coel knows what you mean when you say that slavery is wrong, and I know what you mean when you say “reference”, but in both cases we think the literal meaning is muddled or even incoherent, and the implied meaning is somewhat different than may be commonly understood. So though you have linguistic competence to use the term and we to understand it, we disagree with you about what ultimately underpins the statement.

    To Coel and I, to say it is wrong is to say that we have adopted a society-wide convention to regard it as wrong, and not to say that it is intrinsically wrong. Our interpretation simply means that we adopt an attitude of opposition to slavery. We condemn it with words and we take opposition against it. We teach our children to hate it and we pass laws to make it illegal.

    So Coel holds slavery to be wrong in much the same way that you do, but for him this does not mean it is intrinsically or objectively wrong but rather that he feels a strong emotional repugnance with regard to it. To say it is wrong is therefore in Coel’s view not unlike an aesthetic preference (although I know you are sympathetic to if not enthusiastic about objective aesthetic value).

    This should be clear if an honest attempt is made to interpret him charitably. I think a major reason for “The Coel Hellier Show” syndrome is because Coel is too often misunderstood as being more extreme and unreasonable than he really is, partly (it has to be said) because of how he expresses himself.

    Like

  22. Hi ejwinner,

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness of that reply.

    You refer to new ethical theories (ones which presumably transcend the deontology versus consequentialism versus virtue ethics trichotomy?) that have proven durable and built up a considerable body of knowledge. I am interested in exploring those theories. Can you recommend sources that would be intelligible to an amateur?

    Like

  23. @DM

    But when we say, “that is wrong”, we are not saying, “that violates a society-wide convention”. And we are not simply stating the existence of feelings about the matter.

    If you want to hold that our sense of morality is based on “feelings”, then you need to account for how those feelings came to be, and why there are wide consistencies in people’s moral intuitions. This is not answered by just saying the words “evolution” or “social adaptation”.

    Further, I’ve several times mentioned to Coel that moral realism can be consistent with an evolutionary account (discounting the other problems entailed by such a position). But there’s no interest in that discussion.

    I think a major reason for “The Coel Hellier Show” syndrome is because Coel is too often misunderstood as being more extreme and unreasonable than he really is

    I’d say the real reason for the “Coel Hellier Show” syndrome is that commenters continue to engage in the same discussion with him repeatedly. Why *that* is (and I am just as prone to it as anyone else) is the really interesting question.

    But if part of the problem is misinterpretation, I’m not sure why you’d lay the blame for that with the people interpreting his views. If you tell a room full of people that their ideas are foolish, you should at the very least not expect a charitable response – especially when you display a lack of understanding of those ideas.

    Like

  24. To both John and DM:

    “I still have no idea what “slavery is wrong” is even supposed to mean, unless it is a shorthand that refers back to some human’s dislike of slavery or its consequences.”

    ——

    This is what he wrote.

    As for the rest, I am not going to keep talking about Coel. This is precisely the problem. He and his views hijack every single discussion thread. All that I will say is that if that many people allegedly “misunderstand” you, then it is likely that there is something wrong with *your* views and/or expression of them, not with everyone else.

    ——-

    “To Coel and I, to say it is wrong is to say that we have adopted a society-wide convention to regard it as wrong, and not to say that it is intrinsically wrong. Our interpretation simply means that we adopt an attitude of opposition to slavery. We condemn it with words and we take opposition against it. We teach our children to hate it and we pass laws to make it illegal.”

    ——-

    The problems with this point of view already have been pointed out many, many times, to no effect. Many of us are just sick of repeating ourselves over and over again, in response to the same point.

    Like

  25. At a minimum, any adequate account of morals has to be able offer some rational reconstruction of the fact that from “x is wrong” it follows that “one ought not to do x.”

    DM’s view does not do this and of course, neither does Coel’s. I’m not suggesting that *no* emotivist or sentimentalist theory can do so–Hume’s certainly *tries* to–but to suggest that one’s view *needn’t* do it shows that one does not understand the subject, at its most basic level.

    Like

  26. Hi everyone,

    Asher: My point is that Coel’s explanation is ridiculously simplistic and doesn’t actually explain anything.

    Yes it does, it explains the origin of morals, and thus what morals actually are. That account is widely accepted in science.

    ejwinner: Coel is pulling the “meta-ethic” card to avoid talking about ethics.

    Correct, I’m talking about meta-ethics. But not to avoid talking about ethics, but simply in order to talk about meta-ethics.

    The general implication of Coel’s argument is that evolutionary biology and neuroscience will now give us our ethics, ethical philosophers can now go home

    That is not in any way implied by anything I’ve said, and is roughly the opposite of what I’ve said.

    Massimo: Coel, right, that puts you squarely in what I call the “it’s an illusion” crowd.

    It’s exactly as real or illusional as pain is, or any of our feelings. That means they are very real to us, very important to us, and also subjective.

    At the least you are in good company there (Sam Harris comes to mind).

    No, Sam Harris is arguing for moral realism, which is roughly the opposite of what I’m arguing for.

    ejwinner What he seems to be arguing is that a description of ethics can itself constitute ethics.

    No, I’m not arguing that at all. As I’ve said, ethics is about human feelings about how people interact with each other.

    Aravis: Then go ahead and publish it, in a peer-reviewed ethics journal. That is the standard of credibility in our profession. (Please try. I look forward to hearing all the hilarious rejection letters you get.)

    Sadly, Darwin beat me to it (“Descent of man” 1871). Nowadays his ideas on this are pretty much mainstream and accepted in the relevant fields of science.

    One utilitarian, Peter Singer, has deployed the theory to great effect, in the arena of practical ethics.

    Deploying it for *practical* ethics doesn’t prove moral realism. For most moral-realist accounts of practical ethics it is easy to re-word to arrive at an equivalent descriptive account of ethics. Indeed, for practical ethical matters one can often ignore the meta-ethics.

    You have demonstrated that you know absolutely nothing about philosophy. So why pontificate about it?

    I’m actually talking about a natural phenomenon (moral feelings) which are a product of the natural world — and thus the issue of what morals actually are, and whether moral-realism holds, is actually a scientific one. You are failing to understand ethics because you don’t adopt that attitude of understanding them in the context of their natural-world origins.

    Thomas Jones: but that they play the *only* role while failing to address the simple fact that people can and do change their beliefs in these areas for other than emotional reasons, for example, reasoned arguments concerning freedom when taking up the subject of slavery.

    Here I will quote what I said up-thread: ” Our value judgements can of course be hugely affected by other people’s opinions, by reasoning, by information, by consideration of consequences, but in the end a moral claim is a human value judgement.”

    I then said: “But, for emphasis, I’ll repeat: “Our value judgements can of course be hugely affected by other people’s opinions, by reasoning, by information, and by consideration of consequences”, and of course this practical ethics is of the highest importance to society.”

    Aravis: Very simple. Coel said that he did not understand the sentence “Slavery is wrong.”

    No, actually I didn’t. I said: “By the way, I still have no idea what “slavery is wrong” is even supposed to mean, unless it is a shorthand that refers back to some human’s dislike of slavery or its consequences.” That is quite a bit different.

    He then said that one cannot understand the sentence, unless one has a moral theory.

    Well, no, I didn’t say that either. What I have asked people is what *they* think the phrase means. I’ve asked several people that and no-one has given a clear and straightforward answer. I think that this is because they don’t know what it means, they just have an intuition.

    David: Coel, in my view you are guilty, as Aravis has pointed out, of Calvin-ball like maneuvers. When the responses are closing in, its not uncommon to here that thats only what *we* mean by something or some such to hide the equivocations.

    The stance I’m taking has a long and honourable history back to Hume and Darwin. Further, it is now mainstream and widely accepted in the relevant sciences (e.g. ethology), though I don’t have any poll data. If philosophy has not dealt with this stance then it needs to, because, as I said, it is widespread in science.

    Second, if people have some other account of what “slavery is wrong” means then they’re welcome to tell me about it! I thought that philosophy is about asking questions; it seems an appropriate question to ask. It’s also very relevant to this thread, which is about philosophy’s relationship to science, and the idea that it suffers to some extent from being disconnected from science.

    As Aravis points out philosophers are not paid the common respect of authority in their own discipline granted to nearly every other kind of academic. Is difficult to see how that could be infuriating?

    First, I really am talking about meta-ethics alone (not about practical applied ethics, see up-thread for my comments on applied ethics). Second, human morality is *not* the sole province of philosophers! Sorry, but scientists have done a lot of work on human morality as well, and have found out a lot of really good stuff about it. As just one example take Trivers’s work on reciprocal altruism. Anyone who is dismissing what I’m saying is dismissing the whole field of ethology, because I’m not saying anything new, I’m only saying what is widely accepted in the relevant scientific fields.

    Thirdly, on authority and expertise, my idea of an expert is one who can answer questions about a topic, and present evidence for it, and can explain how it relates to other relevant issues. Yet, here, I ask a straightforward question about what people mean by “is wrong” in the phrase “slavery is wrong”, and I don’t get an answer. Sorry, but to me the ethologists sound more expert about what human morality is than Aravis does. (Sorry, if that comes across as dismissive.)

    ejwinner:I will note that Coel seems to be saying that because the terms of the sentence (‘slavery is wrong’) cannot be (scientifically) verified, the sentence itself is meaningless;…

    No, that was not what I said. I’m simply asking what people mean by it! It’s amazing the lengths people will go to to avoid telling me! Perhaps they haven’t got it sorted in their own mind?

    any opposition to slavery is a matter of (inherited) feelings expressed as opinion.

    I didn’t say that either. See the sentence (quoted again above) that I explicitly repeated because I just knew people would overlook it.

    But ‘wrong’ has social validity regardless of its scientific status.

    What does “social validity” mean, other than a reference to human opinion?

    This is not to say that we haven’t genetically inherited some sense that develops into ethical thought and behavior; but ethics cannot be reduced to this, or we’d all be practicing the same behaviors.

    First, we are not genetic clones, we are all (other then identical twins) genetically different. Second, gene–environment interactions are hugely important.

    Slavery is wrong, for one thing, because it violates too many principles in too many ethical theories (e.g., Kant again, that a person ought not be treated as a thing) to be tolerated.

    Which begs the whole question as to what established those ethical principles. Human feelings over the matter perhaps?

    But what do you say to a whoremaster in Romania who has just ‘bought’ a 13 year old girl from Turkey? ‘Well, how do you feel about this?’ ‘Are you happy with the consequences?’ He replies, ‘Good; I’m making money, I’m happy.’ *Your* ‘argument’ ends there.

    No, my argument does not end there. People want society to have norms, and they essentially enter into a social contract where society’s norms are imposed on everyone. People do not want an every-man-for-himself anarchy. Is this really news to you?

    If you cannot understand this, then please do not discuss ethics anymore …

    Your point was an exceptionally easy one to understand.

    1: your understanding of evolution is over-simplified and in some degree incoherent.

    So you say (though true in the sense that *everyone’s* understanding of evolution is over-simplified).

    Our brains may be genetically programmed (although certainly not by any process of overlapping through oodles of history), in a way that promotes certain tendencies of behavior, but these do not translate into ethics until there is conscious decision making as to what we ought or ought not do. Even should decisions be determined in advance, as some claim, they need to be made, they don’t just happen.

    Yes of course our brains make decisions, that’s what they are there for. Are you alluding to some dualist “consciousness” that is distinct from the product of our genes and the genes-environment interactions? If you’re not, I’m not sure what your point is.

    3. Scientists cannot take the place of ethicists, because society itself is a relatively open and continually changing system.

    Science can study relatively open and continually changing systems. But, did I ever ask for scientists to take the place of ethicists? People seem to be ignoring what I actually said about practical ethics.

    we have a number of verifiably coherent ethical theories that seem able to reach agreement on certain shared values in the process of discussion.

    The words “shared values” being key there.

    the sentence ‘slavery is wrong’ may lack scientific status, but it’s social status is clear and vouchsafed.

    By “social status is clear” do you mean “it is widely agreed” or “it is widely felt”, or something else that relates to human feelings and values?

    Your insistence that the former negates the latter is pointless confusion of differing levels and means of determination.

    I did not say that.

    5. “[‘Slavery is wrong’] is a shorthand that refers back to some human’s dislike of slavery or its consequences” is not an answer to the question, it’s an evasion.

    I beg to differ, it does explain what — in essence — human morals are. Of course it is indeed more complicated than that in practice, but it’s worth stating in concise form for clarity.

    5. I have already provided you with two answers as to why slavery is wrong, one from a Humean perspective, another from a Kantian perspective. There are others, and what is interesting is their agreement on shared values in this matter.

    All of this relates back to *shared* *values*. You are *agreeing* with me.

    6. As, again, I noted to John, your insistence that opposition to slavery is an opinion driven by inherited feeling stands historically and anthropologically falsified.

    This is for the fifth time: “Our value judgements can of course be hugely affected by other people’s opinions, by reasoning, by information, and by consideration of consequences”, and of course this practical ethics is of the highest importance to society.” But, yes, human feelings *do* have a large genetic component, just as everything about humans has a large genetic component.

    7. Description of behavior cannot itself stand in for ethics.

    I never said it could. I have, from the start, rooted ethics in human *feelings*.

    9. First, that’s not true; second, that’s not wanted. That is not itself an ethics.

    Just because you *want* objective morals, to be told what you *ought* to do, does not mean you can have them. I may be the case that nature is not like that.

    It is clear you do not have a theory of ethics, and what you offer cannot take the place of ethical theory.

    As I said, the whole point is that there *is* no ethical theory that can tell you what you ought to do. Sorry! When you’re a kid you want your parents to tell you what to do. Some adults want a god to tell them what to do. But, the truth is that there is no objective moral scheme that tells you what you “ought” to do. Of course humans can *work* *out* and *agree* on such a scheme, from their *shared* *values*, and that is exactly what they do do.

    Like

  27. Hi Aravis,

    You said, “surely, we can’t all start every conversation afresh, as if none of the others had passed before.”

    That’s fair enough. It’s the internet, after all, not a court of law, and sometimes “sh*t gets real,” as t’were. I guess I would just suggest that people be mindful of how subtle changes in tone can affect others’ perception of your views.

    Like

  28. I must second John here, everyone. Please be mindful of your tone. This is meant to be a constructive forum. Which means all out criticism is welcome, but snide remarks much less so. And downright insults will be censored. It isn’t a question of everyone getting along, it’s one of fostering a comfortable forum for all readers and commenters. Thanks!

    Like

  29. John,
    “Perhaps you tried this before and have given it up”
    I think that describes the situation more than adequately. See for instance comments on the recent Radical Empiricism post and many others. Aravis has been generous with his time. So have others.

    Like

  30. Aravis, Asher,

    At a minimum, any adequate account of morals has to be able offer some rational reconstruction of the fact that from “x is wrong” it follows that “one ought not to do x.”

    But when we say, “that is wrong”, we are not saying, “that violates a society-wide convention”. And we are not simply stating the existence of feelings about the matter.

    Then our position is that there is no adequate account of morals, that morals as you conceive of them do not exist. When you say “x is wrong” and “one ought not to do x” on a superficial level you are making some sort of mistake, but in another sense it is not entirely meaningless because we understand that you disapprove of X and want to influence others to disapprove of it too. We also say “X is wrong”, but we believe that the literal meaning is void while the implied disapproval and imperative connotations are meaningful and useful.

    I do think evolution both biological and social can account for morality, but I’ll try to hold off on that discussion for another time if that’s all right.

    Like

  31. Then our position is that there is no adequate account of morals, that morals as you conceive of them do not exist.

    ————-

    Good! Thank you for admitting that. Now we can get on with talking about the morals that everyone else is talking about.

    Like

  32. Hi ejwinner,

    Yesterday you and Coel had a lengthy exchange in which he said he agrees with you on “practical/applied ethics” and was making a point about meta-ethics. Here’s the quote:

    “First, on practical/applied ethics. I more or less agree with everything you say about that (if that surprises anyone then they’ve misunderstood me). Indeed, this discussion arose because I made a comment that I regard this stuff as highly valuable. The mixture of philosophical analysis of ethics with the closely adjacent science of human psychology is important in a very practical sense (and my comment was that it was a topic that philosophy “should do well and does do well”).

    If I haven’t expounded on all the things you mention it isn’t that I “haven’t reflected on any of these issues”, but rather that I recognise that there is a vast area of expertise there that is very different from mine.”

    He doesn’t contradict himself after that, as far as I can see, and his ensuing discussion seems to stick to meta-ethics. Nevertheless, everyone jumps on him for being obtuse about or “dodging” practical/applied ethics. It seems to me that people are attributing views to Coel that he simply does not hold. It gets confusing when that happens, to say the least.

    Like

  33. Coel, actually, Harris is very confused about his position on morality. Yes, he claims to be a moral realist, but he really simply means that there are objective ways to assess moral claims – one does not need to be a realist to do that. (Analogously, there are objectively wrong moves in chess, but one does not need to be a Platonist about chess to see that.) He also claims that free will is an illusion (you agree, no?) from which it has to follow logically that any strong sense of morality is also illusory. How he squares that with his moral realism is his own muddled business.

    Like

  34. There *is* no ethical theory that can tell you what you ought to do.

    ——–

    Care to give us a rundown on your refutations of the myriad moral theories that are out there? Or are we just to take your word for it that none of them work?

    Like

  35. From what I’ve seen of Harris, he seems to be a naturalist about moral properties (‘naturalist’ in the sense that meta-ethicists use the term, such as Cornell realists). At least, that’s what he seems to be getting at by making comparisons between morality and health or nutritious-ness. But I’m not going to expend too much effort trying to decipher Harris: God forbid he engage with the contemporary literature and clearly explain how his view relates to others!

    Anyway, it’s not at all the case that ‘free will is an illusion’ implies that ‘any strong sense of morality’ is also an illusion. Utilitarianism, for example, doesn’t require free will. An action is good or bad according to how much it increases or decreases overall happiness, regardless of whether it was committed freely. (It’s no surprise that Harris is sympathetic towards utilitarianism.)

    Free will is often connected to morality through the concept of *moral responsibility*, which is related to questions about whether people should be blamed/praised for their actions. Often people think that somebody shouldn’t be blamed/held responsible for something that he didn’t commit freely, but not all ethical theories require this connection between free will and responsibility. Again, utilitarianism would say that we should only hold somebody responsible for an action if doing so increases overall happiness.

    Like

  36. @labnut:

    “Coel disputes every issue interminably and stubbornly to the point that one becomes afraid of making any comment because one will spend the next three days batting away his determined contradictions. No, he is not being bullied, he is being told the truth.”

    This strikes me as a fair observation of one of the difficulties with Coel. The reactions to Coel are ones of frustration and exasperation given the interminable number of times he has been corrected/challenged, to no avail. Far from being turned off at how some are exasperated with this, I am actually surprised at how restrained the response has been. “Subtle changes in tone” (John’s phrase) bother me far less than Coel’s foot-stamping loggorreah. Coel, I’m still waiting for substantive, non-question-begging answers to the following (which does not include reiteration, repetition, or the like but substantive engagement with what philosophers have had to say on the topic, including SciSal and Aravis and others on this site):

    1. An answer to SciSal’s point that your contention re: describing morality and describing the immune system are both science. SciSal rightly replied:

    “No, it ain’t science, under any sensible definition of science. But since you adopt an all-encompassing, essentially meaningless, definition of it, then sure, everything is science. Including meta-ethics.”

    You then proceeded to reiterate your point about quality control being the marker of science, etc. along with the following: “The general approach is the same; if finding descriptive statements about the human immune system is ‘science’ then I don’t see why finding descriptive statements about the human aesthetic and moral systems is not.”

    I won’t speak for SciSal, but I recall in his second Bloggingheads video with Aravis (which I would urge you to watch if you haven’t: http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/30523) that Massimo’s tongue-in-cheek response to this general argument was something along the lines of “Fine, since everything involves thinking, science is really philosophy.”

    And don’t bother with the quality control point again. Part of the issue with your views involves things like epistemic and ontological reductionism, etc. (hence SciSal’s “It’s all an illusion” charge). To say that quality control is the issue begs questions re: the quality of what, which you have already assumed ahead of time and then used to dismiss your critics. I also think that David Ottlinger’s charge of Calvinball is apropos as well.

    2. A substantive answer to Aravis regarding Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiment (i.e., not what *you* think, but what you think of what the discipline thinks). You suggested that you might be wrong about your view of it, but you never really engaged the view of the Twin Earth thought experiment in term of what Aravis pointed out (especially re: the idea of linguistic competence and your incorrect view of it). You simply expectorated your incorrect interpretation, demonstrating both a dismissive attitude to philosophers and their work (Ottlinger is surely right on the harm this does) as well as an insouciance toward what Putnam was actually trying to say.

    There’s more, but I’m too damn tired to go through it all again. The Coel Hellier show indeed.

    Like

  37. Aravis, Coel is playing a shell game. He is adopting the position that an absence of unequivocal agreement regarding morality is evidence of absence of theory. His position reduces to emotivism regardless of the window dressing in such statements as “I’m actually talking about a natural phenomenon (moral feelings) which are a product of the natural world — and thus the issue of what morals actually are, and whether moral-realism holds, is actually a scientific one. You are failing to understand ethics because you don’t adopt that attitude of understanding them in the context of their natural-world origins.”

    So we have an attitude problem, particularly as to our ineptness in “understanding . . . natural-world origins,” because evolution, because Darwin, because subjectivity, because preferences, because feelings . . . you know, those natural-world origins.

    Massimo has already identified the substance of Coel’s argument as one of reduction to illusion, but if to engage in moral discussion and argument is ultimately illusional (natural or otherwise or painwise), there is no reason to take Coel’s remarks as more than illusion. Only a proper scientific attitude can rectify this predicament. Because science, folks. You know that other scheme that humans can *work* *out* and *agree* on too. Because empiricism, folks. Otherwise feelings,folks.

    Like

  38. Yes, but I’ve tried to parse his statement “I’m actually talking about a natural phenomenon (moral feelings) which are a product of the natural world — and thus the issue of what morals actually are, and whether moral-realism holds, is actually a scientific one” without much success. “What morals actually are” is actually a scientific one [issue]. I suppose by fiat. This would seem to impart something of an objective nature (“product of the natural world”) to morals, but only in a way that can be apprehended by science in a meaningful way. But this POV seems to work against his claims regarding the subjective nature of moral inquiry. Anyway I look at it, it seems to reduce to “science rules.”

    Like

  39. It’s unclear to me just what is supposed to be consistent between Wittgenstein and Putnam, on your account. No doubt certain vague sentences like “meaning is not all in the head” can be interpreted in a way that’s not inconsistent with Wittgenstein. But that’s no genuine consistency if Putnam’s general understanding of language and meaning is quite different from Wittgenstein’s, which I think is the case. (You presumably don’t.)

    I think we can express our opinions on such matters without always arguing for them, as you’ve just done with your opinion contrary to mine. Perhaps I didn’t adequately mark mine as an opinion, but to be honest I didn’t think it was very controversial. I’ll accept now that it was more controversial than I thought, and won’t press it. I doubt it’s a matter we could hope to settle here, since I suspect you and I have very different interpretations of Wittgenstein.

    Like

  40. Hi Coel,

    Yes it does, it explains the origin of morals, and thus what morals actually are. That account is widely accepted in science.

    And yet scientists keep using the term the same way as moral realists. Take Richard Dawkins, for example. In a discussion with Peter Singer he says things like “It is morally permissible to…” or “We have an obligation to…” etc. And in his latest twitter provocation he says that it is immoral to allow a Downs Syndrome baby to be born.

    Leaving aside his claim to be the sort of blithering idiot who does not realise that the “Tweet” button publishes things to the world, or the idea that one of the worlds most gifted science communicators with decades of experience in public discourse couldn’t manage to express his ideas properly, what does this say?

    Well it says that people who do not believe in an objective right and wrong are still using the language that developed among people who did believe in an objective right and wrong.

    He could have said “I would have aborted the fetus as it would likely suffer and I would not like that”, or something along those lines, if that is what he meant.

    But, no, he expresses it in language which suggests it is a fact, rather than a personal preference.

    I keep seeing this. There was a debate back in the “Rationally Speaking” blog where an atheist says that her right to control her own body is being taken away. Now surely she did not believe she had a right to control her own body any more than I have a right to control my own body. I was going to ask what was meant by this and what sort of a thing a “right” is, but even I could read that room and so didn’t.

    So why do people who don’t believe in moral realism speak of having “rights” and “obligations” or say that this is “morally permissible” or that is “immoral” and so on?

    Could it be that those who have accepted what morals really are (as you put it) have not fully emotionally accepted what they are?

    For my part, I will believe that scientists widely accept that morals are about nothing more than a chemical reaction which increased the probability that an ancient ancestor survived just long enough to reproduce in an ancient landscape, when their language no longer suggests otherwise.

    Like

  41. John Crossett: I am in full agreement with your second para. But unlike what you mention in your first para. I do think my comments are in tension with what the author is saying. Please note this comment from him:

    “As I have suggested, positive lessons can be drawn from the fact that there is far less controversy about the worthwhileness of science-oriented philosophizing than about more general and scientifically (or mathematically) unconstrained approaches. Does this not point the way to a brighter future — as well as signaling that empirically and mathematically unconstrained approaches may need to be jettisoned?”

    No empirically and mathematically unconstrained approaches (i.e. approaches that are essentially like science, or, in fact, are science) can address the issues I mentioned earlier. The author is inherently uncomfortable with the fact that general philosophy is a way too wide and encompassing. But I have derived a lot of value from general philosophy, and am unable to comprehend the assertion that only science like philosophising is useful.

    Also, see another of his comments below:

    “Given that — whatever happens to philosophy departments — meta-questions relating to the sciences and other disciplines will continue to be addressed by practitioners of those disciplines, why does it matter so much to some that philosophy should survive as an independent discipline?”

    Why not? What is wrong with philosophy as an independent discipline? As you yourself point out in your second para, philosophy makes sure that disciplines “stay honest”. It is only because general philosophy is independent that I can address the investing questions without waiting for an “ethicist with an expertise in investing” to guide me.

    Like

  42. “..Philosophy is too broad…, science is too broad, history is too broad, and economics is too broad.” – I agree! I think this is a fundamental feature of our universe today; life is way too broad for any person or group of experts to explain. Not even close.

    Science deals with the problem by sub-specializing and collecting more and more data to allow for more accuracy and precision. It is not that difficult to find a fairly authoritative and reliable expert specialist who knows what she knows and what she doesn’t know. She can give an answer and even provide an estimate of what the probability is that the answer may be wrong.

    Math has its axioms which are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, I am told. In many areas it has been extremely powerful.

    Philosophy attempts to look at the whole by integrating all the known information that a particular exponent deems relevant, but does not submit its theories to testing – if it did, that would be science. In stead, its theories are judged sometimes by whether they are good or bad, but, most often, by whether they are popular or not. Marxian philosophy would be a prime example of the latter mode.

    As already indicated, philosophers play a very important role in questioning, explaining and popularizing. They have an obligation to get their act together, maybe they should invest in a wastebasket.

    Like

  43. John,
    I’m not sure how complete I can be here; so I only offer broad perspectives.
    (Note that the ethical theories of the 19th c. have been considerably revised over time.)
    An outline of the durable ethical theories of the 19th c. must include:
    1. Kantian; although Kant was an 18th c. thinker, his philosophy had its strongest impact in the 19th; we have seen more than one neo-Kantian revision since.
    2. Utilitarian; (Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill – who later revised much of his own thinking); remains highly influential in political policy making.
    3. Hegelian; this spawned a number of widely variant theories. These remain widely suffused throughout Continental philosophy.
    4. Nietzschean; .later interpretations of Nietzsche also differ considerably. Ayn Rand was a right wing Nietzchean, while Michel Foucault claimed to adopt Nietzcheanism for Marxist purposes.
    5. Socialism; Marx had little interest in ethics; but socialist thought outside of Marxism, at least in the 19th c., was ethically rich; 19th c. socialism was based on, and moved toward, ethical principles beyond economics.
    6. Existentialism; finds its roots in the 19th c., particularly the writings of Kierkegaard and Dostoyevski.
    7. Positivism; the term is most readily identified with Auguste Comte, whose project was the rational reconstruction of society along scientific lines.
    8. Social Darwinism; (misnamed; actually derived from Herbert Spencer); popularized through political speeches and journalistic articles, had considerable impact in the 20th century.
    9. Libertarianism; currently identified with Ayn Rand, actually has its roots in Classical Liberal economics and the extreme individualism of such as Max Stirner.
    10. Social Anarchism; (see, e.g., Kropotkin); anarchism from various sources still has an ethical influence promoting collective cooperation.
    Two important American schools:
    11. Transcendentalism; primarily identifiable with Emerson and Thoreau; its influence in American life was felt well up to the end of the 20th Century.
    12. Pragmatism; William James developed a sweeping theory of personality with both implicit and explicit ethical principles. Pragmatist social theory reached something of a peak with Dewey, but remains quite lively today.
    Sorry for getting back late, and not as brief as I had hoped. If I’ve missed any important theory, I welcome correction.

    Like

  44. DM
    “So Coel holds slavery to be wrong in much the same way that you do, but for him this does not mean it is intrinsically or objectively wrong but rather that he feels a strong emotional repugnance with regard to it.”
    It would have been helpful of him to say so directly instead of waltzing around the issue. I’d still disagree, but at least we would know what we were disagreeing about!

    Like

  45. but to suggest that one’s view *needn’t* do it shows that one does not understand the subject, at its most basic level

    Maybe I’m not understanding what you’re saying. That would seem to imply that anyone who argues for moral nihilism doesn’t have a basic understanding of the subject.

    Like

  46. Hi Aravis,

    Care to give us a rundown on your refutations of the myriad moral theories that are out there? Or are we just to take your word for it that none of them work?

    I admit to having some sympathy with Coel’s view with respect to this – my only quibble being that he and others who agree with him hang onto the language of morality while believing it to be an illusion.

    But if there are viable moral theories out there what use are they if only people who have a deep knowledge of the philosophy of morality can understand them?

    What practical use are they to someone like me unless they can propose moral frameworks which I can understand?

    My feeling is that any moral or ethical framework will boil down to some deontic primitive, which will just be a subjective belief about they way I want the world to be.

    Is there any viable moral theory which can be useful to the general public?

    Like

Comments are closed.