Tag Archive: science

Nagel’s obviously objective values

Harris has identified a real problem, rooted in the idea that facts are objective and values are subjective.

Harris rejects this facile opposition in the only way it can be rejected—by pointing to evaluative truths so obvious that they need no defense. For example, a world in which everyone was maximally miserable would be worse than a world in which everyone was happy, and it would be wrong to try to move us toward the first world and away from the second. This is not true by definition, but it is obvious, just as it is obvious that elephants are larger than mice. If someone denied the truth of either of those propositions, we would have no reason to take him seriously.

These cases show that the idea of truth applies to values as much as it does to facts—but as with facts, the idea is not limited to obvious cases. There are many questions of value whose answer is not obvious, and about which people disagree, but that does not mean that they do not have a correct answer. As Harris points out, exactly the same can be said of historical and scientific questions: one should not confuse truth with what is known, or agreed on by everyone.

The evolutionary character of social engineering

The political artist clamours, like Archimedes, for a place outside the social world on which he can take his stand, in order to lever it off its hinges. But such a place does not exist; and the social world must continue to function during any reconstruction. This is the simple reason why we must reform its institutions little by little, until we have more experience in social engineering.

This leads us to the more important second point, to the irrationalism which is inherent in radicalism. In all matters, we can only learn by trial and error, by making mistakes and improvements; we can never rely on inspiration, although inspirations may be most valuable as long as they can be checked by experience. [ch. 9, 181]

Piecemeal social experiments

Such arguments in favour of Utopian engineering exhibit a prejudice which is as widely held as it is untenable, namely, the prejudice that social experiments must be on a ‘large scale’, that they must involve the whole of society if they are to be carried out under realistic conditions. But piecemeal social experiments can be carried out under realistic con­ditions, in the midst of society, in spite of being on a ‘small scale’, that is to say, without revolutionizing the whole of society. In fact, we are making such experiments all the time. The introduction of a new kind of life-insurance, of a new kind of taxation, of a new penal reform, are all social experiments which have their repercussions through the whole of society without remodelling society as a whole. Even a man who opens a new shop, or who reserves a ticket for the theatre, is carrying out a kind of social experiment on a small scale; and all our knowledge of social conditions is based on experience gained by making experiments of this kind. … But the kind of experiment from which we can learn most is the alteration of one social institution at a time. For only in this way can we learn how to fit institutions into the framework of other institutions, and how to adjust them so that they work according to our intentions. And only in this way can we make mistakes, and learn from our mistakes, without risking repercussions of a gravity that must endanger the will to future reforms. … But the piecemeal method permits repeated experiments and continuous readjustments. In fact, it might lead to the happy situation where politicians begin to look out for their own mistakes instead of trying to explain them away and to prove that they have always been right. This—and not Utopian planning or historical prophecy—would mean the introduction of scientific method into politics, since the whole secret of scientific method is a readiness to learn from mistakes. [ch. 9, 176-7]

A state’s liberal responsibilities

I certainly believe that it is the responsibility of the state to see that its citizens are given an education enabling them to participate in the life of the community, and to make use of any opportunity to develop their special interests and gifts; and the state should certainly also see (as Grossman rightly stresses) that the lack of ‘the individual’s capacity to pay’ should not debar him from higher studies. This, I believe, belongs to the state’s protective functions. To say, however, that ‘the future of the state depends on the younger generation, and that it is therefore madness to allow the minds of children to be moulded by individual taste’, appears to me to open wide the door to totalitarianism. State interest must not be lightly invoked to defend measures which may endanger the most precious of all forms of freedom, namely, intellectual freedom. And although I do not advocate ‘laissez faire with regard to teachers and schoolmasters’, I believe that this policy is infinitely superior to an authoritative policy that gives officers of the state full powers to mould minds, and to control the teaching of science, thereby backing the dubious authority of the expert by that of the state, ruining science by the customary practice of teaching it as an authoritative doctrine, and destroying the scientific spirit of inquiry—the spirit of the search for truth, as opposed to the belief in its possession. [ch. 7, 143]

The objectivity of a critical tradition

Elfte These: Es ist gänzlich verfehlt anzunehmen, daß die Objektivität der Wissenschaft von der Objektivität des Wissenschaftlers abhängt. Und es ist gänzlich verfehlt zu glauben, dass der Naturwissenschaftler objektiver ist als der Sozialwissenschaftler. Der Naturwissenschaftler ist ebenso parteiisch wie alle anderen Menschen, und er ist leider – wenn er nicht zu den wenigen gehört, die dauernd neue Ideen produzieren – gewöhnlich äußerst einseitig und par­teiisch für seine eigenen Ideen eingenommen. Einige der hervorragendsten zeitgenössischen Physiker haben sogar Schulen gegründet, die neuen Ideen einen mächtigen Widerstand entgegensetzen.

Meine These hat aber auch eine positive Seite, und diese ist wichtiger. Sie ist der Inhalt meiner zwölften These.

Zwölfte These: Was man als wissenschaftliche Objektivität bezeichnen kann, liegt einzig und allein in der kritischen Tradition; in jener Tradition, die es trotz aller Widerstände so oft ermöglicht, ein herrschendes Dogma zu kritisieren. Anders ausgedrückt, die Objektivität der Wissenschaft ist nicht eine individuelle Angelegenheit der verschiedenen Wissenschaftler, sondern eine soziale Angelegenheit ihrer gegenseitigen Kritik, der freundlich-feindlichen Arbeits­teilung der Wissenschaftler, ihres Zusammenarbeitens und auch ihres Gegeneinanderarbeitens. Sie hängt daher zum Teil von einer ganzen Reihe von gesellschaftlichen und politischen Verhältnissen ab, die diese Kritik ermöglichen. [88]

The naive “anthropologist from Mars”

Zehnte These: Der Sieg der Anthropologie ist der Sieg einer angeblich beobachtenden, angeblich beschreibenden und angeblich induktiv-generalisierenden Methodologie, und vor allem anderen einer angeblich objektiveren und daher dem Anschein nach naturwissenschaftlichen Methode. Es ist ein Pyrrhussieg; noch ein solcher Sieg, und wir sind verloren – das heißt nämlich die Anthropologie und die Soziologie.

Meine zehnte These ist, wie ich gerne zugebe, ein wenig zu scharf gefasst. Vor allem muß ich zugeben, daß viel Interessantes und Wichtiges von der sozialen Anthropologie entdeckt wurde und daß sie eine der erfolgreichsten Sozialwissenschaften ist. Und ich will auch gerne zugeben, daß es für uns Europäer von großem Reiz und von großem Interesse sein kann, uns einmal selbst durch die Brille des sozialen Anthropologen zu betrachten. Aber obwohl diese Brille vielleicht farbiger ist als andere Brillen, so ist sie eben deshalb wohl kaum objektiver. Der Anthropologe ist nicht der Beobachter vom Mars, der er oft zu sein glaubt, und dessen soziale Rolle er nicht selten und nicht ungern zu spielen versucht; und es gibt auch keinen Grund, anzunehmen, daß ein Bewohner vom Mars uns „objektiver“ sehen würde, als wir uns zum Beispiel selbst sehen. [85]

No such thing as a scientific “discipline”

Neunte These: Ein sogenanntes wissenschaftliches Fach ist nur ein abgegrenztes und konstruiertes Konglomerat von Problemen und Lösungsversuchen. Was es aber wirklich gibt, das sind die Probleme und die wissenschaftlichen Traditionen. [84]

Induction, philosophy’s toughest zombie

Science is an exercise in inductive reasoning: we are making observations and trying to infer general rules from them. Induction can never be certain. In contrast, deductive reasoning is easier: you deduce what you would expect to ob­serve if some general rule were true and then compare it with what you actually see. The problem is that, for a scientist, deductive arguments don’t directly answer the question that you want to ask.

Scientism: slavishly aping a myth

But I should go even further and accuse at least some professional historians of ‘scientism’: of trying to copy the method of natural science, not as it actually is, but as it is wrongly alleged to be. This alleged but non-existent method is that of collecting observations and then ‘drawing conclusions’ from them. It is slavishly aped by some historians who believe that they can collect documentary evidence which, corresponding to the observations of natural science, forms the ’empirical basis’ for their conclusions. …

Worse even than the attempt to apply an inapplicable method is the worship of the idol of certain or infallible or authoritative knowledge which these historians mistake for the ideal of science. Admittedly, we all try hard to avoid error; and we ought to be sad if we have made a mistake. Yet to avoid error is a poor ideal: if we do not dare to tackle problems which are so difficult that error is almost unavoidable, then there will be no growth of knowledge. In fact, it is from our boldest theories, including those which are erroneous, that we learn most. Nobody is exempt from making mistakes; the great thing is to learn from them. [186]

A travesty of the nature of scientific thought

The scientific paper in its orthodox form does embody a totally mistaken conception, even a travesty, of the nature of scientific thought. …

The scientific paper is a fraud in the sense that it does give a totally misleading narrative of the processes of thought that go into the making of scientific discoveries. The inductive format of the scientific paper should be discarded. The discussion which in the traditional scientific paper goes last should surely come at the beginning. The scientific facts and scientific acts should follow the discussion, and scientists should not be ashamed to admit, as many of them apparently are ashamed to admit, that hypotheses appear in their minds along uncharted by-ways of thought; that they are imaginative and inspirational in character; that they are indeed adventures of the mind.

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