September 18, 2012
How do the myths of positivists, those spirited defenders of ‘Science’, come to bear upon our commonly shared world? When it comes to the relationship between science and ethics, is the wall that separates ‘facts’ from ‘values’ a valid inference from the evidence, or just another positivistic myth?
One of the essential traits of our mythologies is our difficulty in perceiving them as such. Other people’s mythic stories stand out to us as obvious deviations from what we know is true, but our own beliefs – being necessarily true, or we would not hold them – are excluded from this kind of judgement. At least, this is the broad strokes version; I find I can hold beliefs without expecting them to be true, and Nietzsche also pushed boldly forward in this general direction. Even theists, notoriously tarred by others with the stain of self-deceit, may acknowledge that their own beliefs must be in error somehow: to claim otherwise would be to confuse faith in God with faith in one’s own image of God, a kind of idolatry that is arguably prohibited in the Abrahamic traditions.
Positivists – those that limit their beliefs to the boundary of the testable – are no worse victims of this blindness than anyone else but many have a unique mental defence against mythic self-realisation, namely justifying their entire beliefs as validated by science. This, on closer inspection, is a rather odd claim since positivists wildly disagree with one another – sometimes passionately, and often forcefully – despite claiming identical foundations for their beliefs. The reason for this queer state of affairs is that science does not represent a clean cut box of neatly stacked facts, but rather a haphazard, sometimes contradictory, never quite complete scrapbook of theoretical models and practical measurements. Seeing this edifice as the best foundation for truth is one of the most basic positivist myths.
The original positivist myth, however, is that touted by the person who coined the term ‘positivist’ in the first place, the nineteenth century French intellectual Auguste Comte. Comte was the founder of sociology and (not unrelatedly) of positivism, and believed in “the Law of three stages”, whereby societies (and sciences) evolve from a theological stage, through a metaphysical stage to a final positivist stage, where it is purified of all metaphysics and theology. This ‘science supersedes religion’ story – which I've heard voiced out loud by sci-fi author Ian Banks and others – is reminiscent of the mythologies the early Christian church deployed to stamp out ‘heretical’ religious traditions pre-dating its foundation. It seems positivists are just as prone to mythic visions of progress as their religious cousins.
Another common positivist mythology is what Mary Midgley has dubbed ‘science as salvation’ - the view that whatever problem we face, it can be solved by further research into new technologies. Positivistic faith in technological immortality is one example I’ve discussed before, a bizarre way of wishing for doom and believing it to be liberation. Equally odd is the ‘flee the dying planet’ myth embedded in a great many science fiction stories: if we cannot co-operate sufficiently to stabilise our terrestrial environment, the colossally impractical expansion beyond our world is a tall order indeed. It is striking that after the detonation of the first atom bombs, some of our finest nerds were convinced our civilisation had a life expectancy measured in mere decades – this eschatological myth would seem to be in direct opposition to ‘flee the planet’, yet it often feeds directly into it.
Eschatology - the “study” of the end of all things – is where positivist mythology really puts itself on a par with its religious predecessors. Man has always been obsessed with stories of his own destruction (women, thankfully, have been rather less enamoured with this kind of doomsaying). Science fiction, the mythic wellspring for positivists, is packed to the gills with stories of our extinction, or post-apocalyptic stories of our near-extinction. Some philosophers, stoically abandoning philosophy in favour of their own engaging mythologies, turn extinction into the centre point of a myth that might be uncharitably called ‘doom worship’ (or perhaps ‘dead certainty’). I’ve always found these kinds of stories oddly reminiscent of the eschatologies of early human cultures, many of which accepted as a given the transitory nature of existence.
For myself, the crucial difference between human civilisation lasting for millions of years compared to just thousands of years utterly exceeds the relatively trivial facts of eventual extinction. Besides, on this as with so many matters I am ultimately agnostic: without knowing how this universe came to be, I cannot rule out absurd survival scenarios in the far future (time loops, successive universes and so forth). But either way, what matters now is what happens here and now – the attempt to substitute time as a non-deity in some kind of metaphysical goal-line drive strikes me as rather silly. While this kind of eschatology is a venerable tradition in human culture, it's not much of a foundation for anything worthwhile beyond epic navel gazing.
One striking difference between positivist mythologies and their religious predecessors is a lack of overt moral content. Conventional mythic stories have always highlighted ethical considerations – consider the implications of the Epic of Gilgamesh or The Iliad, to give just two ancient examples. Positivist mythology, by contrast, tends to sidestep moral concerns, often by presenting itself as factual and thus immune from concerns of values. This supposed separation between fact and values, the blight of twentieth century moral philosophy, is incredibly strange! As Bruno Latour has noted, the idea that any kind of scientific fact emerges without any influence from the researchers values is absurd; at the very least, the decision of what to research could not be value-neutral. More than this, however, the idea that fact and value come apart cleanly is entirely farcical – moral values intimately entail facts. The force of the ethical injunction against murder comes in part from the facts of death. If life were more like (say) a videogame, the morality of killing would necessarily differ.
The erecting of an ever-taller wall between ‘facts’ and ‘values’ is the shadow of the now defunct Vienna circle – the logical positivists that inherited Comte’s crown and modernised his dreams. Although logical positivism as such was a dead end, those early twentieth century philosophers and partisans of science did radically affect the mythic landscape of science, helping to give birth to the contemporary split between a science that was supposedly wholly factual and value-free, and a moral philosophy which was then inevitably left with next to nothing once the divorce was finalised.
Ironically, the effect of sidelining ethics in positivist mythology is not to render them value-neutral, but to escalate their moral content to an incontestable status. The mythology of genetic medicine, for instance, presupposes the moral acceptability of its actual research outcomes – or at least, it did until stem cell research collided this issue with contrasting stories. The unstated yet overriding myth of the researcher has always been ‘my research is neutral, and I am blameless for what society does with it’s outcomes’. As Hannah Arendt complained in respect of the nuclear bomb, such indifference to consequences does not paint scientists in a very appealing light. The belief in the neutrality of scientific practice becomes an amoral smokescreen, obscuring matters of concern deserving of debate long before technological genies are released from their respective bottles.
Ultimately, as I assert in The Mythology of Evolution, there is no science without mythology, and positivism is inevitably as riddled with narrative myths as any traditional religion. This is not to say that science or positivism is a religion, per se, this is simply humanity being human, and no great cause for concern. However, the denial of any ethical dimension to science itself takes terrible risks not only with scientific credibility but with the planet we all share. The “Vienna wall” between facts and values must be torn down for the benefit of all, including the researchers whose work can no longer be considered entirely in isolation from their societies. But this is particularly difficult when the primary metric applied to research is that of its market value. The wall conveniently obscures the alliance of greed between science and industry.
Science cannot replace religion, but positivistic non-religion can supplant traditional religion, as it has done to some extent in the UK and France. What we should neither expect nor hope for is the transformation of our mythic landscapes into purely positivistic terms. Older myths still have their role to play – and not just for the practitioners of long-standing traditions. The ethical resources of mythology are just as available to us as they have ever been – we just briefly forgot that there was a vast world outside of the fenced-in domain of ‘fact’ we cannot afford to lose touch with.
You can find more about positivism and contemporary myths in my new book, The Mythology of Evolution – and you can also win a copy of the book for free!
I'm reminded of your post on Jonathan Haidt's work on how political views can be associated with factual and normative issues like birth control or climate change. So when you said that positivism limits our knowledge of the world to the testable I thought that was utterly disagreeable.
Then I thought more about it.
The first thing is that positivism is a bit of a straw man on the one hand, and on the other, who or what is a positivist?
I've hardly heard anyone identify with being a positivist living and those who are dead, very few actually did, if we are talking about 'Logical Positivism', well that's a whole can of worms that I find objectionable. But that's another story...
Let's be charitable about your point about a really strict kind of scientific mindset. I think Scientism would be a better word than positivism. That's also a possible straw man too but at least we can imagine someone who favoured the primacy of scientific research over all other things.
It's fair to say that people who are committed to a view like scientism or some strong empiricism have a value programme. This would namely be something like: the importance of peer review, the elimination of bias or discrimination perhaps and the importance of evidence and perhaps something like transparency of publications or results.
I'll grant that these are outside of an epistemological scheme, but would you consider these values as a form of mythology?
A point about value neutrality and maybe a bit about the Vienna Circle. If I were to take the token positivists (Comte, Durkheim, or the Vienna Circle philosophers) individually one would almost invariably find an implicit normative doctrine within their work. Many of the early social scientists were liberal-humanistic pro-democracy types. Some were even socialist of various stripes (before that word had a different meaning to how it's tarred today)
Perhaps one 'myth' about the positivists is the idea of progress. Progress in science and progress in human development are common staples for positivists. This is hardly a value-free idea, as an academic and scientific establishment is needed, this would need certain political and social conditions to encourage research.
The idea of progress is held by probably most of the people we might putatively consider as positivists.
Otto Neurath as part of his corpus developed a highly symbolic and rationalised ideal langauge called ISOTYPE, which I believe was an example of his wider theory of symbols and culture.
Isotype was intended as a pictographic language to indicate certain kinds of messages without using words. Neurath originally considered this language to have a political and artistic potential to be subversive as well as informative.
Popper considered science and the idea of scientific progress as a way of overcoming the politically motivated prejudices of things like 'Race studies' or Marxist ideology. I think its fair to say that the positivists did indeed have a normative, value based agenda in their work, but maybe this is seperable for your intents and purposes from the positivist epistemology. But I think they are certainly compatible. I don't think it's a coincidence that these kinds of values came from a group of philosophers who were living during the rise of Nationalist Socialism, and its a sign that these philosophers didn't live in a vacuum.
So let me make a conclusion that I would agree that a scientific mindset does have certain mythologies, value based mythologies (progress, democracy etc.). I certainly would not say that Religion has a better set of mythological values. I say this because all religions have different kinds of values, some are potentially universal, and others are purposely discriminating.
But where do we go from here? You've correctly highlighted the Kurtzweill/de Grey mythology of technological immortality (it's one of my rational blind spots). I think its fair to say that most scientists or scientifically minded people would want to dismiss this sort of view. But I agree that it is a form of narrative that is present in literature and elsewhere. There are good myths and bad myths. Popper's open society = Good. Kurzweill's singularity thesis = pseudoscience (the idea that Moore's law will reach a point where human and computer interface will be one and the same thing).
The same is with religions. There are great values from religious traditions, such as tolerance, forgiveness or consideration for the less fortunate. But there are other things like homophobia, patriarchy and other forms of intolerance as well. I think this is where facts and values can have a relationship with each other. Many anti-homosexuals make empirical claims such as gay parents make for worse parents, and while this is a value oriented issue, its something that empirical research can look into. There's even a body of research looking into the flaws of peer process too! Talk about self-undermining and being self-reinforcing at once.
Very thought provoking conclusions about mythologies.
Posted by: Noumenalrealm | September 19, 2012 at 01:06 AM
Michael: thanks for your commentary here! Many interesting points.
A few clarifications: by 'positivist' I mean anyone who limits their ontology at the testable - I do not mean (solely) logical positivists. And I wish to note that Stephen Hawking expressly identified to one of his colleagues as a positivist. Because the term 'positivistic science' has made it into (un)common currency, I believe the term has legs.
I intentionally (after some consultation with Mary Midgley) chose 'positivism' over 'scientism' because the latter is *clearly* an insult and not a term anyone would apply to themselves. But I see no reason that anyone should be shy of being a positivist - I *don't* want it to be a term of abuse, but a viable identity. In fact, for most atheists I think it would be clearer for all concerned if they recognised their positivism as the important part of their belief system (non-religious atheism that is not a form of positivism always risks being little but a shell for containing anti-religious prejudice).
Also, I do not claim that moral mythology is *solely* religious in nature. In fact, most of the major moral mythologies - Kantian duty ethics, Utilitarianism and Aristotelian virtue ethics - are *not* religious in nature. Religions do cultivate ethics, but they are far from the only institutions that do.
Sadly, out of time. Anyway, you'll get a lot more on these topics as you get deeper into "The Mythology of Evolution".
All the best!
Posted by: Chris | September 19, 2012 at 09:01 AM
Fascinating post. I agree with you on a lot of the points. (I won't reiterate here, but a lot of it is in my article on Hans Blumenberg and his Myth-Science Arkestra.)
A few points of contention though. Before I start, I should say I am very glad these issues are brought up and I wouldn't argue against points if I didn't think these issues needed serious treatment. It's a refreshing change from Zizek, e.g.
One striking difference between positivist mythologies and their religious predecessors is a lack of overt moral content. Conventional mythic stories have always highlighted ethical considerations – consider the implications of the Epic of Gilgamesh or The Iliad, to give just two ancient examples.
Do you really mean overt, or implied, since you say "implications" in the next sentence? This is important because a lot of what happens in those works and many others would not fall under the rubric of "ethical" in our sense of the term. While there are certainly values in the Iliad, they are far from what we would consider "ethical": glory-seeking, inequality and deference to one's betters, knowing one's place (hello Thersites), and letting people die over petty grudges. Homer's views are certainly ambiguous, but nonetheless far from overt moral content. And one could say that similar values ARE built into the scientific world-view: a promotion of curiosity, ambition, mastery, skepticism, experimentation, etc. To split these off from any "moral" standpoint is to beg the question by assuming the division you're trying to establish.
Which is ultimately to say that the mythological structure is indeed similar and that the "unique mental defence against mythic self-realisation" is not in fact unique but absolutely typical. Historically, scientific thinking has shown itself to be less stable than other mythic modes, which I'd say is to its credit, though hardly unproblematic.
Consequently, I think the strawmen of the positivist and the "neutral researcher" are both highly problematic:
the contemporary split between a science that was supposedly wholly factual and value-free, and a moral philosophy which was then inevitably left with next to nothing once the divorce was finalised.
This caricature of the Vienna Circle is just not accurate, and the evidence I first cite is that, as you say, most of them were devoted pacifists and socialists and had far more respectable politics than most of the continentals who have since attacked them. Nor do they share much in common with Comte's particular *social* universalism. See these passages from Carnap, for example, who wanted to restrict science to so small a domain that he was attacked by Popper. So most were acutely aware of the *insufficiency* of raw logic but held out hope for its influence in "the riddles of life," but NOT its exclusive dominance.
Who is a logical positivist today? No one, as far as I can tell--people on all sides have thrown out the ideology as being unworkable. I think the more germane question is what remnants of an idealistic scientific viewpoint remain with us and unquestioned, and what nefarious influences they may have.
The mythology of genetic medicine, for instance, presupposes the moral acceptability of its actual research outcomes – or at least, it did until stem cell research collided this issue with contrasting stories. The unstated yet overriding myth of the researcher has always been ‘my research is neutral, and I am blameless for what society does with it’s outcomes’. As Hannah Arendt complained in respect of the nuclear bomb, such indifference to consequences does not paint scientists in a very appealing light.
Here I really don't see the truth of this generalization. In these cases at least, there seems to have been grave moral concern on the part of the researchers in both fields, even Oppenheimer. And hardly an indifference to consequences. I think you really need to cite more evidence here before painting with such a broad and condemnatory brush. Many people are rotten and amoral, but this is hardly specific to scientists. Whatever Arendt said, I don't see how she can put them on a lower ethical level with regard to the consequences of their actions than, say, Heidegger.
I would cite as better examples Social Darwinism and race science, as well as things like Tuskegee and icepick lobotomies, where the underlying ideology involved social issues considerably more imminent and thus less defensible from a contemporary moral standpoint. That, I think, is where the danger of scientific ideology is most evident and incontestable.
Posted by: AuerbachKeller | September 19, 2012 at 07:43 PM
ps--Loved Discworld Noir! Some fascinating narrative mechanisms that deserve more attention. And Rob Brydon was brilliant.
Posted by: AuerbachKeller | September 19, 2012 at 08:09 PM
Many thanks for your thoughtful commentary (and kind words about Discworld Noir!). Some responses...
"Do you really mean overt, or implied, since you say 'implications' in the next sentence?"
Ha, yes I tripped over my own sentence here, although I can't at this point in time find quite the right words to correct my mistake - but you're right that 'overt' isn't the best representation.
"While there are certainly values in the Iliad, they are far from what we would consider 'ethical': glory-seeking, inequality and deference to one's betters, knowing one's place (hello Thersites), and letting people die over petty grudges."
They're certainly not *our* values, but the Heroic ethic was a morality, and the epics reflected the ethical positions of their day. This is my point. (See, as another point of reference, my discussion of Viking morality: http://onlyagame.typepad.com/only_a_game/2012/03/vikings-vs-murderers.html) I'm not suggesting we should live *now* by Heroic values, I'm only highlighting the connectivity between a culture's literature and its morality.
"Which is ultimately to say that the mythological structure is indeed similar and that the 'unique mental defence against mythic self-realisation' is not in fact unique but absolutely typical."
I accept this criticism! I still do think there is *something* unique about the positivist defense, but this sentence failed to capture what it was! :)
I said: "the contemporary split between a science that was supposedly wholly factual and value-free, and a moral philosophy which was then inevitably left with next to nothing once the divorce was finalised."
You said: "This caricature of the Vienna Circle is just not accurate"
Sorry, I've blurred my point here. It wasn't that the Vienna Circle had no morality, it's that in the wake of the Vienna Circle, the direction that twentieth century moral philosophy took was voided by the beliefs they espoused. The criticism should, perhaps, be leveled at G.E. Moore et al (see, for instance, Alistair's MacIntyre's critique therein in "After Virtue"). I rushed my argument, and left out key steps required to explicate it.
"Here I really don't see the truth of this generalization. In these cases at least, there seems to have been grave moral concern on the part of the researchers in both fields, even Oppenheimer. And hardly an indifference to consequences. I think you really need to cite more evidence here before painting with such a broad and condemnatory brush."
I'll take this criticism, but only with reservations. My understanding of the Manhattan project and its participants is obviously very different from yours, and certainly the prevailing trend within scientific research is to pursue whatever research an individual has interest in and funding is available for, considering ethical implications only from a very limited perspective constrained to University 'ethics committees', whose concerns do not (cannot?) match the concerns of the public at large. If you can give me some reading material to counter this impression (which is formed from the perspective who conducts his own funded scientific research!) I welcome the counterpoint!
And I also appreciate you citing more extreme examples - although I chose the genetic engineering example advisedly *because* it was not obviously contentious, and therefore demonstrated my point, although perhaps not entirely clearly.
For reference, the Hannah Arendt quote is:
"The simple fact that physicists split the atom without any hesitations the very moment they knew how to do it, although they realized full well the enormous destructive potentialities of their operation, demonstrates that the scientist qua scientist does not even care about the survival of the human race on earth or, for that matters, about the survival of the planet itself."
This is harsh condemnation - but Arendt's phrase "scientist qua scientist" is key to understanding it. She is not saying that people who are scientists do not care or are amoral, but that *in the role of the scientist*, moral issues are set aside. And I see this as a consequence of the fact-value divide, opened accidentally by Hume and then turned into a gulf by those moral philosophers influenced by the Vienna Circle such as Moore, what I'm calling here "the Vienna Wall".
Thanks again for the commentary!
All the best!
Posted by: Chris | September 20, 2012 at 10:03 AM
I have no problem saying that there's something unique about the scientific defense--indeed, it's quite distinctive. Of course, there is *something* unique about all defenses, but science is rather sui generis for all sorts of reasons.
They're certainly not *our* values, but the Heroic ethic was a morality, and the epics reflected the ethical positions of their day. This is my point.
That's fair to say, but then I don't think you can deny that science has an implicit morality as well--as any set of prescriptive norms will then have a moral component. Reading the non-technical writings of many famous scientists will immediately show moral concerns to be extremely present.
For the nuclear bomb, I would cite Bainbridge's words, "Now we are all sons of bitches," just as Jonathan Blow did at the end of Braid. Hardly the words of someone indifferent to moral concerns.
I think there's a confusion here between morality in the post-Enlightenment sense, a particular deontological conception that one could argue does not bear directly on scientific investigation (though the point is debatable), vs the more general conception of prescriptions of "good" human behavior that is present by definition in all human activity, including science. Let's call Enlightenment ethics, those that Macintyre criticizes, EE, to separate it from the concept of *a* morality. What is the difference between a morality I find repulsive and the purported "amorality" of science? I would argue none: they are both about conduct of human behavior. The supposed "amorality" of science is an accusation of it separating itself off from EE.
Likewise, Macintyre's criticism is leveled at the Kantian conception of morality, not at the Vienna circle. So the problem is not with positivism per se but with modernity in toto and its focus on liberal values rather than behavior. Whether one accepts Macintyre's critique or not (I think he has points but he doesn't have a solution), the issue is too widespread to pin on positivism.
And the Arendt quote seems nothing more than question-begging to me. In order to show that scientists qua scientists ignore ethics, she says that scientists who did not hesitate to split the atom...were behaving as scientists qua scientists. It's a circular definition.
I should say that I do not rate Arendt highly: the Origins of Totalitarianism is an aggressively ahistorical book that makes all sorts of claims utterly unsupported by the facts, such as this one:
Wealth without visible function is that much more intolerable than aristocratic power because no one can understand why it should be tolerated....Antisemitism reached its climax when Jews had similarly lost their public functions and their influence, and were left with nothing but their wealth. When Hitler came to power, the German banks were already almost judenrein (and it was here that Jews had held key positions for more than a hundred years) and German Jewry as a whole, after a long steady growth in social status and numbers, was declining so rapidly that statisticians predicted its disappearance in a few decades. Statistics, it is true, do not necessarily point to real historical processes; yet it is noteworthy that to a statistician Nazi persecution and extermination could look like a senseless acceleration of a process which would probably have come about in any case.
This is simply not true. The facts aren't there to support it, and as an explanation for antisemitism it is at best misguided. Worse, it links up to a certain blame-the-victim mentality that I find deeply irritating in Arendt:
However much the Jewish pariah might be, from the historical viewpoint, the product of an unjust dispensation . . . politically speaking, every pariah who refused to be a rebel was partly responsible for his own position and therewith for the blot on mankind which it represented. From such shame there was no escape.
Which is simply preposterous. One can and should debate whether developing a nuclear bomb in the time of Hitler and Hirohito was justified or not, but Arendt is in no position to be casting stones so glibly.
Have you read Schneewind's The Invention of Autonomy? For me, it revealed many of these issues to be far more complicated than they are presented in accounts like MacIntyre's (though After Virtue was a significant book for me and really influenced my thinking). I highly recommend it, at any rate.
Posted by: AuerbachKeller | September 21, 2012 at 09:37 PM
"moral values intimately entail facts"
Sure? My own entailment arrow would be the other way round. But then, maybe I'm just a positivist :-).
Posted by: Peter Crowther | September 21, 2012 at 09:45 PM
Peter: perhaps I should have said "moral values and facts are intimately entangled" - since I don't think there's an arrow here that can be made to point in just one direction! :)
Auerbach: thanks for continuing our discussion!
I'd like to clarify that I *do* believe that as an institution the scientific establishment has a very clearly defined moral stance - in particular, one in which truth is given an exceptionally high status (indeed, as remarked by Nietzsche).
I suppose the nub of my concern is the view that science should be free (which is to say, heavily funded) to investigate every viable line of research on the grounds that we can't have too much information, or that all learning and discovery is valuable. This is a fairly widespread view, but it's one that attempts to position scientific research out of the reach of everyday ethical judgement - and perhaps it is this that concerns me since I believe researchers should be just as answerable to their communities as police and politicians. That there is a topic to be researched is not - in and of itself - a justification for pursuing that research, and to claim otherwise is to some extent to hide behind what I'm calling (perhaps unfairly!) the "Vienna wall".
"Likewise, Macintyre's criticism is leveled at the Kantian conception of morality, not at the Vienna circle. So the problem is not with positivism per se but with modernity in toto and its focus on liberal values rather than behavior."
I think you might be conflating two separate threads in MacIntyre's argument: the argument he advances against G.E. Moore is not the same as the 'moral fictions' argument he advances against Kant and Mill, and it is the former (not the latter) which I am linking to the Vienna Circle. But let me add that I appreciate you challenging me on this, as it gives me a chance to ensure all my ducks are in a row. :)
"Whether one accepts Macintyre's critique or not (I think he has points but he doesn't have a solution), the issue is too widespread to pin on positivism."
I agree with everything you say here! :) But in terms of the cul-de-sac that was twentieth century moral philosophy for the first three quarters of a century, the reinforcing of the fact-value distinction does appear to have been a root problem - and I don't think I'm entirely out of line linking this to the Logical Positivists, even if the narrative is incomplete and thus misrepresentative in this piece.
Are you genuinely telling me that you don't think GE Moore and similar ethical directions explored in the early twentieth century were influenced by Quine, Carnap et al? Or are you only telling me that you don't think I can make that connection as strongly as I appear to try in this particular piece?
Re: Arendt, the pendulum seems to have swung back against her recently. I don't use her work extensively in my own, but I appreciate a lot of what she's done, although more from her side-essays than the big projects. Like MacIntyre, she ties philosophical issues into a historical perspective, which I appreciate - although I am certainly open to the criticism that some her facts may be incorrect in Origins of Totalitarianism.
I haven't read the Schneewind, although I keep seeing it cited! :) I'll try and get this into my reading list, but it's been bursting at the seams for years now and can't take much more! :o
All the best!
Posted by: Chris | September 24, 2012 at 02:21 PM
The Vienna wall seems awfully porous to me. I think there are strictures applying in every case. I don't see *anyone* defending Tuskegee or Mengele's experiements as justified in the name of science. (See http://www.nytimes.com/1988/04/19/opinion/l-let-nazi-medical-data-remind-us-of-evil-915488.html) You may say I'm invoking Godwin's Law here, but if this is not a counterexample to the claim that scientific research is positioned outside of everyday ethical judgment, I don't know what is.
If the claim is that *methods* may be subject to ethical judgment but *avenues of investigation* may not be, I would argue against that delineation, since investigation requires a method and thus the method must be put under the scope of everyday ethics. Nonetheless, there seem to be grave reservations about research into human cloning and nanotech even if the methods are taken to be wholly ethical. Not everyone agrees, but I can't conclude from this that this is a defect in the underlying ethical formulation.
At least from where I stand today, researchers are *more* answerable to their communities than police and politicians. I live in New York, after all.
"Are you genuinely telling me that you don't think GE Moore and similar ethical directions explored in the early twentieth century were influenced by Quine, Carnap et al?"
I'm not sure what question you're asking here--did you mean that Moore influenced Quine and Carnap? If that's the question, my view is that Quine never wrote on ethics and was a Burkean conservative, and Carnap was a utopian socialist. I see no evidence for Moore's influence on either, honestly. Neither made any mention of intuition/emotion in ethics. On Ryle and Austin, moreso, but here we are far out of any territory that has anything to do with science as a vocation.
The ethical landscape of *science*, in my opinion, is predominantly that of the world at large, which is to say it has little to do with philosophy over the last 100 years. The two dominant ideologies I see in scientists and engineers today are democratic socialism and libertarianism, neither of which have much to do with Moore or positivism, and which owe far more to Kant and Enlightenment ethics in general. Outside of philosophy, Bertrand Russell is a far more influential *ethical* figure than Moore, but it's because of his politics and not because of his vague semi-Moorean ethics, which mostly go unread. "Why I Am Not a Christian" has influenced far more scientists than Principia Ethica.
I STRONGLY recommend Schneewind since it's just so germane to these issues and SO damn good. He argues that Pufendorf is a crucial figure that's mostly ignored today, and I think he makes a pretty good case. It's long, but highly readable.
Posted by: AuerbachKeller | September 26, 2012 at 07:43 PM
Auerbach: Thanks again for continuing our discussion, although I think we are nearing our logical conclusion at this point!
"The Vienna wall seems awfully porous to me."
A catastrophic disaster is how I would put it, but I take your point. :)
"If the claim is that *methods* may be subject to ethical judgment but *avenues of investigation* may not be, I would argue against that delineation, since investigation requires a method and thus the method must be put under the scope of everyday ethics."
I can see what you're saying here, but I'm not sure this is sufficient to cover all the bases. Ethics committees in universities only assess research in terms of their internal guidelines, which are basically Kantian in nature (not that I have a problem with Kantian ethics, you understand). But herein lies the issue: anything that does not present a methodological issue under this ethical check is fair game, irrespective of what the wider moral perspective on the research might be from the context of putative resulting technology. Assessing methods is not assessing the moral impact of a formative technology - it is to assume that anything which can be researched 'ethically' does not need to be considered in any other context.
"At least from where I stand today, researchers are *more* answerable to their communities than police and politicians. I live in New York, after all."
Ha - touche! :) But I think your comment goes to the lack of accountability in the case of the latter; where is the accountability in the case of the former supposed to manifest?
Me:"Are you genuinely telling me that you don't think GE Moore and similar ethical directions explored in the early twentieth century were influenced by Quine, Carnap et al?"
You: "I'm not sure what question you're asking here--did you mean that Moore influenced Quine and Carnap?"
Sorry, I meant this the other way around - Quine and Carnap influencing *Moore*. But reading this back now, I can see that even the question wasn't quite right, since Moore's Principia Ethica (which MacInyre places as ground zero for the problem I'm addressing) is twenty years *before* the Vienna Circle - so I am forced either to reverse this (as you did) or withdraw it! I can see now more clearly that I have woven two threads together that are not as tightly wound as I had previously thought - many thanks for clarifying this for me.
"The two dominant ideologies I see in scientists and engineers today are democratic socialism and libertarianism, neither of which have much to do with Moore or positivism, and which owe far more to Kant and Enlightenment ethics in general."
You may be correct about dominant political ideologies, but when I am talking about positivism I am talking about metaphysical ideologies, and I do believe that positivism is the dominant metaphysical ideology of the contemporary sciences - indeed, even someone who works under different metaphysical systems is essentially required to play at positivism to conduct research (in so much as they are required to blockade their ontology at the testable). Also, it is worth remembering that postivism is not logical positivism, even though logical positivism was a positivist position. :)
The entailments generally from metaphysics to ethics to politics - not from politics to ethics to metaphysics. I suppose Marx might be an exception here, but I am not well studied on Marx, so I probably shouldn't comment.
"Outside of philosophy, Bertrand Russell is a far more influential *ethical* figure than Moore, but it's because of his politics and not because of his vague semi-Moorean ethics, which mostly go unread. 'Why I Am Not a Christian' has influenced far more scientists than Principia Ethica."
Yes, I don't disagree with this - although 'Why I Am Not a Christian' is in my opinion one of Russell's weakest essays; I rate pieces like 'In Praise of Idleness' substantially higher in terms of their insight. Honestly, Nietzsche did it all better, funnier and better thought out almost fifty years earlier! Russell's anti-Christian writings get worse from then on in, until he is literally handing out pamphlets as an evangelical nonbeliever! But then, in my terms at least, Russell is clearly a positivist and always was. So to say that Russell influenced many scientists is to acede to my claim of a connection between contemporary scientists and positivism - albeit while successfully shooting down my volley at the Vienna circle. :)
"I STRONGLY recommend Schneewind since it's just so germane to these issues and SO damn good."
On my reading list, but at 650 pages unlikely to get read any time soon, alas - which is doubly frustrating as it does look like a perfect source for my purposes. Wish I'd known about it a year ago, but my forthcoming book of moral philosophy is already running late and making time for something this big will be challenging. Don't suppose there's a paper that covers the same ground? ;)
Posted by: Chris | September 27, 2012 at 12:40 PM
Postscript: I cited G.E. Moore, because it is he that MacIntyre points a finger at, but I should have been citing A.J. Ayer and R.M. Hare in connection with the "Vienna wall", as it is these two more than anyone else who advance the fact-value distinction and Ayer *was* influenced by the Vienna Circle (and Hare was influenced by Ayer) - so I misthreaded my argument slightly, but the 'accusation' against the "Vienna Wall" still stands. :)
Also: I'm going to order the Schneewind via library loan and attempt to pick out the most useful content from it for my current book project. Warn me if this isn't the kind of book that I can get away with reading just chapters. ;)
All the best!
Posted by: Chris | October 09, 2012 at 08:47 AM