ethics philosophy science

it’s going good

This post – in less overtly philosophical language…

We can talk about what something factually is and we can also talk about what it is worth.  Science can tell us factually what a foetus is, but not what it is worth.

We can talk about the way things ‘do’ behave, and we can also talk about the way things should behave.  Science can tell us the way a rapist behaves, but not that rapists should not rape.

15 replies on “it’s going good”

qualification and reminder: nothing can tell us those things in such a way that we can have omniscient (god-like) knowledge of them.

response: annoying as you may find it, I think we need to distinguish between natural science and logic/reason. Obviously they’re related – science uses logic. But logic/reason can work ‘after’ science – reflecting on it in ways that science cannot, being limited as it is by the need for observation. metaphysics literally translates: ‘after physics’.

I’ll rephrase the question: What tells is “what [a foetus] is worth” or “that rapists should not rape”?

The reason I ask is that ultimately this is a moral argument for theism which has two parts, crudely expressed as:

1. Science can’t
2. Theism can

The second part is the interesting part to me, because I actually largely agree with you on the first part.

Good stuff sir. Yes, the simple argument form is familiar. I’ve argued that simply before.

But as to the answer to ‘what can?’, let me say that (keeping in mind the qualifier that humans are non-omniscient) we all ascribe a value and give ‘rights’ to human life at various stages (embryonic) & conditions of life. One need not be a ‘theist’ to assign value to human life. What I’m interested in is how these values and judgments are justified. They (‘worth’, ‘dignity’, ‘rights’, etc.) aren’t justified by reference to scientific facts, that’s for sure. (Though I think you disagree with Ken Perrot on this…)

(BTW, do you assign value to a foetus Ian? If so, I’m curious if you have any thoughts as to the assumptions or value-judgments which you have to make in doing so??)

They (‘worth’, ‘dignity’, ‘rights’, etc.) aren’t justified by reference to scientific facts, that’s for sure. (Though I think you disagree with Ken Perrot on this…)

There is an important distinction here: that people give things like worth, dignity. rights etc value is an observable fact. How they do so is also matter for scientific inquiry as well (regardless of source) and such work is done. The actual specific content of such valuations (e.g. foetus < baby) can also be described, but your argument is that it cannot be evaluated by science – is that fair? I think it may actually be possible (given an objective moral code) to do so, but let us assume that it cannot for the purposes of this discussion:

I must then raise a familiar question: what can?

(BTW, do you assign value to a foetus Ian? If so, I’m curious if you have any thoughts as to the assumptions or value-judgments which you have to make in doing so??

I actually really struggle with this having spent a lot of time thinking about it. I think all valuations are relative, personal, and subject to change although they share commonalities given common sources. Firstly I think value only really exists in the context of decision making. IMO a foetus doesn’t have inherent value, it only has value in the context of a decision is being made that involves it. Hence I could easily imaging the value of a foetus ranging from virtually nothing to virtually everything dependent on the context of the decision.

Yes, I’ve just posted a post with a pic that maps differences between quantitative and qualitative values. We can scientifically study ‘that’ people assign worth, and also the neuro-bio phenomena correlating this. But this doesn’t make the actual (qualitative) value a matter of ‘fact’.

And whatever name we give to what ‘can’, I think it’s true that we all do this. Which leads to your comments re foetal worth – which I appreciate you giving.

I’m interested in how you think decision making provides a context in which a foetus ‘really’ has value (or no value)? It seems arbitrary. But then you did say (honestly – which I appreciate) that you don’t think a foetus has inherent value.

I think there is an overwhelming impulse (no doubt for good bio-evo reasons) to see life as having inherent value. I think these impulses (though they can mislead as well) can carry truth even though they are not scientific. And scientific facts aren’t in tension with any general notions of inherent (qualitative) value to human life.

Some summary points in no particular order:

1. Science can describe what we value, how those values may manifest neurologically, and some potential evolutionary reasons for their development.
1a. We both agree on this.

2. Science can’t say whether they are “right” or not.
2a. I say nothing can – and would go so far as to say the statement in (2) doesn’t actually make sense
2b. You say everyone can do this but science can’t.

3. Something non-scientific exists
3a. I say no such thing exists
3b. You haven’t said much on this at all

4. Value exists independent of humans
4a. I believe this is at best un-testable, and I suspect entirely baseless.
4b. You haven’t really given any justification for believing this yet.

I think we can safely park (1), and can probably skim over (2) and (3). It seems to me that (4) would be the most fruitful directions for the conversation – thoughts?

quick comment: (your tone is appreciated – refreshing)

re 2a – I’d say it’d be better to phrase 2 in saying “science can’t say whether they [attributions of value] are ‘actual’ or ‘real’ or not.
re 2b – Yes, everyone engages in the other-than-scientific-and-factual business of value-assumptions.

re 3a/b – What about the scientific method? Or values (which we are discussing)? I claim that it’s circular to say that a) non-scientific things don’t exist and b) we know this because science can’t detect them. But maybe you have a better argument?

re – 4-a/b – This is an overtly epistemic discussion. I don’t think scientific methodology is the only way to gain knowledge. Many things in life are ‘un-testable’. One doesn’t have to be anti-science or anti-testing to appreciate other sources of knowledge. Reason and logic are pretty friendly to post-enlightenment, rationalistic western folk like you and myself. But I also think intuition and emotion can confirm things. I suggest we focus on logic and reason though. And to pre-empt a reply – logic/reason and science are related, but still distinct.

2b: We agree that everyone makes value assumptions but how do we determine their actual-ness or right-ness?

3: From my point of view, the scientific method is simply a method for filtering out false patterns. Science is the process of finding patterns. If we can perceive something, it exists, and is subject to pattern matching. If we can’t perceive something (directly or indirectly) then it might as well not exist (i.e. it is irrelevant).

4: I tend to use Ackoff’s Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom hierarchy. Data is simply input of any kind. Information is data plus metadata (where observed, when, how etc). Knowledge is information in the context of other information (i.e. patterns). Wisdom is the ability to base future actions on predictions based on knowledge. I can’t think of anything that doesn’t fall into this hierarchy. The scientific method is a method for obtaining knowledge, not data or information.

IMO logic and reason are also tools for obtaining knowledge from information. I agree these are not synonymous with science, and I would say they are more basic than science which I suppose is really a particular use of them. Everyone knows how science does its thing: the unknown is how emotions and intuition do their thing in the realm of knowledge and wisdom? To be honest I am not even sure what their thing is?

2 – again, we’re not going to be omniscient with any of this – but I think the way value assumptions resonate with our desires and emotions – and thinking it through (reason) etc. The most basic and foundational of all value assumptions, however (which is other-than-scientific), is that the world (‘creation’) is ‘good’.

3 – Yes, I like to say that science’s telos is to describe the mechanisms at work – ‘patterns’ says it well. But back to the point – the scientific method itself wasn’t established with science – it rests on the assumption of order and intelligibility.

4 – It sounds like Ackoff’s hierarchy is descriptive. The knowledge that the scientific method produces is descriptive and doesn’t make value judgments. Not sure how this relates to your question of value independent of humans..

Re your last paragraph:
Again, I think there is a “resonance” when a metaphysical value, goal, or behaviour is in right relationship to a physical value, goal, or behaviour. I haven’t developed this, but I think the converse is also true; there is a “dissonance” when a metaphysical value, goal, or behaviour is not in right relationship to a physical value, goal, or behaviour.

In the strictest sense, a hand is not ‘for’ picking things up in the prescriptive (metaphysical) teleological sense, but only in the descriptive (physical) teleological one. But there’s a ‘resonance’ between the two – ability to act ‘resonates’ with responsability to act… Breastfeeding would be similar. The universe doesn’t prescribe breastfeeding – and even the biological impulses at work are only (biologically speaking) impulses to be describe, and not prescriptive. But again, the ‘resonance’.

p.s. – someone much more philosophically inclined has no doubt already worked this out and can express this much clearer and it may even have a name or something :D

2a – Surely such a resonance would be expected from an evolutionary explanation too – after all the values would have developed alongside our emotions and reason (unless you are using a special meaning of resonance?)

2b – What possible reason is there to think the world is inherently “good”?

3 – I don’t think the scientific “method” is anything special, its just a very effective way of removing observer biases from observations before seeking patterns in them. In that sense it did emerge from science as a tool. And it doesn’t rest on any such assumption, it just works a lot better when that happens to be true :)

4 – I’ll be honest: I think the notion of non-perceived knowledge gaining is entirely empty. I am quite happy for you to change my mind on that. So far all we have to say about values is that we perceive people have them and hold them quite strongly. We don’t have anything else to work with so for me anything that talks about inherent values is pure conjecture? Again, happy to be shown to be wrong.

I also don’t follow this resonance argument. Things that are connected resonate with each other in what I think is the sense you mean but then nearly everything resonates with everything else. What is special about this resonance that allows us to assume that inherent value exists?

2a – yes, but we are reasonable in concluding (even assuming) that ‘resonance’ indicates a good judgment and ‘dissonance’ indicates a bad, etc.

2b – Psychological and theological reasons come to mind. Psychologically, we feel better about life and our continued existence in it if it (and ourselves) are at least in some sense ‘good’. Theologically, creation is ‘good’ by the act and decree of the Creator. Analogously, we attribute value to the art of skilled artisans (vandalism rates are lower when good art is done).

3 – No it does rest of the continuing assumption. :)

4 – non-visible is not the same as non-perceived.

2a – Not necessarily, although there may be practical reasons to do so. I am still not entirely sure what you mean by resonance here either.

2b – The psychological reason gives no weight to its truth, only its usefulness. The theological reason assumes a whole lot of stuff that we should probably avoid raising in this discussion :)

3 – It can’t really rest on that assumption because one of the things the method does is find the order. Nonetheless we just so happen to find ourselves in a relatively ordered world so its really rather academic, and if we were to find something non-causal or non-ordered, the scientific method would probably be the way we knew.

4 – Agreed, and I deliberately used the word perceived in what I said.

2a – establishing what a ‘practical’ reason is – is anything but objective. ‘resonance’ is the compatibility of a physical function and metaphysical value, etc.

2b – establishing what is ‘useful’ or not is not objective either. Agreed not to raise theological stuff :)

3 – no… the methods finds the mechanism(s), and (at EVERY point) assumes order. Disorder at any stage or level ruins the whole thing.

4 – you were saying ‘non-perceived knowledge’ is an empty thought – and I’d agree.

Quite tired – just a quick comment after auckland gig of band tour (bFM and Hamilton tomorrow – 2-3 things in Welly next day). Later sir – Off to bed :)

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