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Foucaultian Histories: ‘Archaeology’ And ‘Genealogy’- Part One.

June 4, 2014 2 comments

Foucault’s histories are broken down into two classes, ‘archaeology’, and ‘genealogy’, Gutting states he does not locate Foucaultian histories in any strict scientific sense of the term, as in they are not archaeological in the scientific sense, but rather are located in a much more fluid realm in which they are “retrospective” descriptions, and are “driven much more by the specific historical subject matter than by prior methodological commitments”. As such he proposes

…tracking Foucaultian histories along four dimensions: histories of ideas, histories of concepts, histories of the present, and histories of experience. (Gutting, 2003, p. 7)

Keen observers will see in this language a similar use to the metaphysical discussions of philosophers of the Enlightenment, Gutting notes that Foucault speaks ill of these traditional  theories, but still parallels his histories of ideas (in particular) along them sometimes, for example a central theme in his The History of Madness is Descartes’ discussion on the possibility that he is mad as a grounds for doubt. Due to my recent investigations into pragmatism I might surmise that Foucault’s discussion of ‘concepts’ will bring him into conflict with philosophers of science, as surely an atheistic, naturalistic analytic philosopher who discusses the categories of scientific investigation will have differing thoughts to a Continental Postmodern, post-structuralist (if these labels even apply) philosopher like Foucault who discusses concepts, and conceptual structures across disciplines, but alas, I’m jumping ahead of myself.

Gutting states that much of Foucaultian histories fall under the genre of “the history of concept’s” which he adopted from his friend and mentor Georges Canguilhem:

This approach flows from an insistence on the distinction between the concepts that interpret scientific data and the theories that explain them. By contrast the standard Anglo-American view (…) is that theories are interpretations of data and therefore define concepts in terms of which data are understood. On Canguilhem’s view, concepts give us preliminary understanding of data that allows us to formulate scientifically fruitful questions about how to explain the data conceptualized. Theories then provide different – and often conflicting – answers to these questions… As long as concepts are regarded as functions of theories, their history will be identical with that of the development of theoretical formulations. But for Canguilhem concepts are “theoretically polyvalent”; the same concept can function in quite different theoretical contexts. This opens up the possibility of histories of concepts that are distinct from the standard histories that merely trace a succession of theoretical formulations. (Gutting, 2003, p. 7-8)

Foucault demonstrates this use of Canguilhemian concepts through many different forms, provided by Gutting, the most interesting of which is the way in which Foucault, provides accounts of the empirical sciences of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in his The Order of Things. Although Gutting admits this text is a simple history of the relevant concepts of this field, Foucault goes further on Canguilhem’s method in this work;

For Canguilhem concepts correspond to disciplines, and the history of a concept is written within the confines of the relevant discipline. But Foucault links apparently very different disciplines by showing similarities in their basic concepts. (Gutting, 2003, p. 9)

An example of how he does this is when he argues that the Classical empirical sciences of “general grammar, natural history, and analysis of wealth” share a closer common conceptual structure with each other than their modern counterparts, that is philology, biology and economics (one might feel a twinge of Wittgenstein’s “language games” and “forms of life” as a possible explanation of this phenomenon), Foucault calls this phenomena an “episteme”: that is a “system of concepts that defines knowledge for a certain era” (p. 9). The result of this method by Foucault means that now the historian is now not limited to define a discipline by its own terms, one may deal with the first-order concepts of say biology (such as nervous systems, gaseous exchange), but one may also use second-order concepts as Foucault did such as “representation and historicity” (p. 9) that, as Gutting states are the “conditions of possibility for the first-order concepts.” (p. 9).

As Gutting mentions this discursive look at the “intellectual subconscious” of  scientific practices was the focus of much of Foucault’s work, predominantly handled by his archaeologies:

Archaeology is an important alternative to the standard history of ideas, with its emphasis on the theorizing of individual thinkers and concern with their influence on one another. Foucault suggests (…) that the play of individuals’ thought, in a given period and disciplinary context, takes place in a space with structure defined by a system of rules more fundamental than the assertions of the individuals thinking in the space. Delineating the structures of this space (the goal of the archaeology of thought) often gives a more fundamental understanding of the history of thought than do standard histories centered on the individual subject (…). (Gutting, 2003, p. 10)

Foucault’s motives for embarking on this journey are due to the fact that he finds the current institutions, disciplines, and social practices “intolerable”, his archaeologies are about using the past to point to some aspect he felt needed addressing in the present, usually to the aformentioned categories. That Foucault used the past to speak about the present might be considered standard fare states Gutting, particularly for Enlightenment thinkers who might think that where we are now is inevitable given our history, where Foucault’s thought is unique is in his ability to show the contingency of history and thus current thought:

Intolerable practices and institutions present themselves  present themselves as having no alternative: How could we do anything except set up asylums to treat the mentally ill? How deal humanely with criminals except by imprisoning them? How attain sexual freedom except by discovering and accepting our sexual orientation? Foucault’s histories aim to remove this air of necessity by showing the past ordered things quite differently and that the processes leading to our present practices and institutions were by no means inevitable. (Gutting, 2003, p. 10)

The example Gutting uses to demonstrates this is Foucault’s history of madness in which Foucault assaults our modern conception of madness and mental illness, stating there have been alternative conceptions of madness throughout history (such as madness as a “moral fault” in the Classical Age, rather than as antisocial and/or dangerous behaviors as we do now), but that neither definition and practice of madness and the treatment thereof deserve special placement as having access to the “truth about madness”, no, to Foucault they are “social constructions, intelligible and apparently compelling in their own periods…” (p. 11) Moreover Foucault sees modern psychiatry as less about being a triumph of scientific objectivity and more as a “product of scientifically and morally suspect forces peculiar to the social and intellectual structures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” (p. 11)

This is a very short look at Foucault’s histories and an even briefer look at his archaeologies, Gutting goes into an interesting analysis of Foucault’s views of ‘man’ for example how he is in a perplexing position to be “both an object in the world, but also an experiencing subject through which the world is constituted.” (p. 12) Modern thought takes this to be the only such conception of man, but as Foucault notes this is just “one contingent construal of that reality” (p. 12) Although as interesting as this analysis is, it only serves to demonstrate the same critique presented by Foucault’s look at psychiatry and as such I left it out. In our next post we will look at his genealogies.

***Edited*** I’m adding here what I thought would turn into a second blog, but as I’m not reading this book anymore, I’ll simply attach my final notes:

Finally let us look at Foucaultian his genealogies. Gutting states:

We have seen how Foucault’s archaeological method is an outgrowth of his use of Canguilhem’s history of concepts. Similarly his genealogical method can be understood in terms of his desire to write histories of the present.  In fact, in one use of the term, Foucault simply identifies genealogy with history if the present, regarding it as any effort to question the necessity of dominant categories and procedures. More narrowly, genealogy is a history of the present specifically concerned with complex casual antecedents of a socio-intellectual reality (in contrast to archaeology, which is concerned only with the conceptual structures subtending the reality). (Gutting, 2003, p. 12)

As we see above to Foucault his histories are less about objective facts, and more about perspective, that is he adopts different different historical approaches to discuss particular historical realities. In particular his genealogies are an out and out attack on Enlightenment notions (grand narratives) of ‘inevitable progress’ by tracing the origins of practices and institutions to their ‘contingent’ and ‘petty causes’ (p. 14). This view has been criticized, many think that Foucault should not be called a historian, and thus not judged by the standard norms of histiography, and Gutting agrees, insofar as he thinks Foucaultian histories have an agenda, but, even if looked at from a strict historiographical perspective Foucault’s histories may still provide us with a solid historical footing “they may still be adequate to their task of grounding a historical critique of current malpractices.” (p. 15)

Reference

Gutting, G. (2003). ‘Introduction’, in G, Gutting (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, New York, New York. Cambridge University Press.

 

 

Categories: Philosophy, Postmodernism

Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Social Naturalism.

April 10, 2014 Leave a comment

So, I haven’t posted on here for a few months, partly due to a holiday to Japan for my sisters wedding, then the collapse of the gym I was working for and the following mad scramble for employment, and then losing track of my thought process with Nielsen’s incredibly complex work. With that in mind, I’m going to scrap the previous investigation I was doing and focus instead on the naturalism that Nielsen actually espouses, namely: social naturalism.

To Nielsen we are “irreducibly” social, and self-interpreting animals, and that it is partly in social relations that constitute what it is to be human. To Nielsen this aspect of humanity is not simply a “dangler” to be snipped off to reveal “the purely biological nature of what it is to be human.” (p. 57)

This social naturalism is also a nonscientistic naturalism. It rejects, as a piece of incoherent metaphysics, the Quinean, Smartian, Armstrongian belief – the belief of metaphysical or “scientific” realists – that physics, or natural science more generally, yields our best approximation of the one true description of the world and that any further filling in of that must be done by physics or a science based on physics… I think that is nothing more than a scientistic metaphysical dogma. By contrast I argue that there is no one vocabulary – or for that matter several vocabularies taken in conjunction – that can tell it like it is and that science is not privileged here such that what science cannot tell us humankind cannot know. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 57)

Nielsen goes further to state in Wittgensteinian fashion that our “knowing and conceptualization” is perspectival, that is there are different “discourses” and “language-games” that we use to explain different social practices for different purposes.  Nielsen thinks it a mistake to put the discourse of physics ahead of say the discourses of politics, literature, social anthropology, poetry etc, as if these disciplines were not discussing reality, or indeed had nothing to say about it. They all have their place, but no one discipline leads us closer to the “truth” about reality or even “ultimate reality” Nielsen states, anymore than the other, nor can we even make any sense of what “ultimate reality” is like from the sciences over what poetry might be able to tell us or indeed, what it even is:

We do not know what we are talking about in speaking of “ultimate reality” or of “reality in itself” or even about just plain old reality full stop. Both the sciences and poetry as well help us cope with reality though in quite different ways and for very different purposes. We learn from reading poetry about human sensibilities, feelings, and conceptions of life. These tell us about realities, but different realities, realities we can be interested in for different reasons than the realities chemistry and physics tell us about. But there is no sense in saying that one reality rather than the other is “really reality”. Both tell us about things that are “equally real” but answer to very different human interests.  (Nielsen, 2001, p. 58)

From here Nielsen states that his social naturalism is a form of historicism in that there is no “over-leaping history”, that to Nielsen our attitudes, conceptions and beliefs are embedded and part of social practices that are located historically and are culturally “distinctive and determinate” (p. 58) He is quick to note that this does not relegate us to “imprisonment” in relativism, of any kind. We can alter our social practices as they come in contact with others and indeed as they come into contact with other cultures. Through this process Nielsen believes we can critically alter our social practices, as we operate in them, we can operate on them, but he states we can never stand completely free of them to the point of view from the universe: “There is no ahistorical perspective – no “perspectiveless perspective” or “God’s-eye perspective” (p. 59) Again he denies relativism here stating that it is possible to, from wherever we stand, “look back at previous ways of life or look sideways at other extant ways of life, and sometimes see how we have now come to have either a more adequate or less adequate cluster of social practices than these other ways of life.” (p. 59) To Nielsen we can never stand free of culture, but this does not mean that these are bounded systems in which we cannot escape entirely, sometimes we remain untouched within our own cultures of certain cultural practices, without ever standing outside of it.

To Nieslen his social naturalism is nonscientistic and “nonutterly biological”, moreover it is a “contextual-historicist naturalism”, which he believes escapes the common criticism of naturalism that it makes a religion, or ideology out of the natural sciences that are supposedly there to tell us how the world really is for humans and nonhumans alike, with all other perspectives being illusory. Nielsen thinks that scientific naturalisms claim to be continuous with science, and scientific themselves but end up being “ersatz science”, and although these type of naturalisms reject, as Nielsen does, appeals to the spiritual entities of theistic metaphysics, they no more “fix belief” by the scientific method “than does Thomistic-Aristotelianism”. No, Nielsen claims that in both cases we have metaphysical theories “whose theories are so problematical as to be arguably incoherent or at least best set aside as yielding very little, if anything in way of understanding. Nielsen’s social naturalism, according to him, is not metaphysical and thus not held hostage to said difficulties. (p. 60)

Nielsen does still want to address, indeed needs to how the scientific picture fits into his social naturalism; how does he think at one time that as stated above “we are “irreducibly” social, and self-interpreting animals, and that it is partly in social relations that constitute what it is to be human. To Nielsen this aspect of humanity is not simply a “dangler” to be snipped off to reveal “the purely biological nature of what it is to be human.” while accepting a scientific view of the universe, how does he avoid reductionism and scientism?

In fleshing out what he means by human beings being complicated animals, Rorty stresses the usual thing that they are language-using animals and that with that there goes the ability to think, to reflect, to be self interpretive, to make critical and reflective endorsements – all the conceptual reflectiveness that McDowell takes to be essential to his relaxed naturalism or what Putnam calls a sane naturalism (McDowell 2998; Bernstein 1995). (Nielsen, 2001, p. 436)

It is in this line of thought that Nielsen places his naturalism:

Complicated language-using animals are still animals, macroscopic objects, part of the space-time world. Still reason – it is no longer viewed as Reason – has been naturalized without losing its normativity… There is no conflict between my social naturalism and anti-scientism, on the one hand, and my regarding, on the other hand “that over and above the space-time world, there is nothing further that exists” (Armstrong 1999, 86).  (Nielsen, 2001, p. 436)

Nielsen’s naturalism is not a “scientific naturalism” nor is it an unscientific or antiscientific one, instead and in the vain (as mentioned above) of Putnam and McDowell it is a relaxed one that does not consider there to be one way to view the world, no “one true description”  of the world or one way it has to be, there are Nielsen states: “various accounts embedded in different practices answering to different interests and needs none of which are “closer to reality” or more of a telling it like it is than the others. What should be thought and said depends on the context and what interests are at issue. What is apposite to believe depends on the context.” (p. 443) For Nielsen, it is a piece of common sense that the sciences are the best way to understand the structure of the physical world, he does hold to a cosmological naturalism that the object of the sciences, that is the spatio-temporal world is the only reality we can talk about, where it is coherent to do so at all. There may be other context dependent realities, or worlds to talk about, as in the political, the artistic, the human, the moral, things that lead to Nielsen’s social naturalism, but they are so because they are not independent of the physical world, indeed “there would be none of these realities if there were not physical-realities – space-time entities.” (p. 446)

This is only a very brief look at what Nielsen’s social naturalism entails, consider it a taste if you will. Whether I investigate it further or offer strict arguments for it, will depend on my capricious nature, as such you can accept it or deny it as you will. I have not demonstrated it to be true, only briefly what it entails.

Reference

Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

 

 

Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Methodological Naturalism.

January 11, 2014 Comments off

Thus far we have looked at some basic terminology regarding naturalism (see here), we have very basically looked at cosmological naturalism (see here), we have looked at some criticisms of cosmological naturalism (that may also apply to naturalism as a whole, for them see here), and we will continue to develop and address those criticisms over the course of the series, but for now, let us look at methodological naturalism and allow Nielsen to briefly define it for us:

2. Methodological naturalism is a methodological commitment to employing inquiry only the norms and methods of inquiry of the empirical sciences together with their logico-mathematical auxiliaries. This the claim is, is the only way we legitimate and securely can fix belief. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 135)

As stated it is the sciences which are used to determine both the categorical terms that are taken as basic, including those terms used to characterize the generic traits of nature, as Nielsen states:

Different naturalists will take different categories to be basic, but they will all agree on the use of the scientific method as the proper way of fixing belief – including belief concerning which categorical terms to adopt. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 145)

Some clarifications before we move on: what exactly is the scientific method in our conversation here today? How can it be the sole fixer of belief, and be reliable enough to establish a worldview around? (The term “fixing belief” has been used, but what does this mean? Essentially it is the method we attempt to attach our beliefs to, for example Pierce would state that the scientific method is the tool that gives us the most access to facts (others such as metaphysics or theology have been used) and thus is the most reliable method for us to fix our beliefs to, for more see here). Hook and Nagel define their use of the scientific method as an empirical one, a “hypopthetico-deductive-inductive method” (p. 169), that as Pierce called “the combined use of induction, deduction and abduction” (p. 169). Hook and Nagel’s project was to shirk extraneous philosophical posturing, to avoid the philosophical urge to look for “first principles” (naturalistic or otherwise), specifically our underlying presuppositions, to them there is “no special philosophic knowledge, or philosophic wisdom that can be otherwise gained or warranted” (p. 169) instead their focus was on the “working truths on the level of practical affairs which are everywhere recognized and which everywhere determine the pattern of reasonable conduct in secular affairs, viz., the effective use of means to achieve ends”.  (Nielsen quoting Hook, p. 159) Nielsen states that these working truths are not necessary ones, but rather more reasonable than their alternatives (whether this has been demonstrated is a source of disagreement), they avoid pedantic discussions (usually held by and between philosophers) about the problems of looking for first principles; in the same way that the results of science can be known without locking down every principle and presupposition of scientific reasoning (we can after all know that obesity is related to dietary and lifestyle factors rather than the position of the sun).  Some examples of possible categories, or working truths determined by the scientific method were mentioned in the last blog (see here), “structure, function, power, act, cause, relation, quantity and event.” (p. 145), these are not factually true or false, so the argument goes, but are “proposals about how to conceptualize things whose use is to be justified pragmatically.” (p. 162)

We are more confident of the warrant of those beliefs … than of any first principles that people might appeal to for their justification. (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2003, p. 160)

From here Hook states:

The choice… of which categories to take as basic in describing a method depends upon the degree to which they render coherent and fruitful what we learn by the use of the method… [it is a non sequitur states Nielsen] to assume that because one asserts that the fundamental categories of description are X, Y, and Z, and that they hold universally, one is therefore asserting that the world cannot be significantly described except in terms of X, Y and Z. (Hook 1961a, 191)  (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2001, p. 169)

To Hook and indeed Nielsen the above is not to say that the world consists of nothing but X, Y and Z, we can also use A,B and C which might not be categorical and still say as nonreductive naturalists: “that the conditions under which any existing thing is significantly describable in terms of A, B and C are such that they are describable in terms of X, Y and Z.” (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2001, p.169) The example he uses to demonstrate this is Nielsen himself moving a pen, we can describe the movements of such in terms of intentional acts, and in terms of bodily movements (without reference to intentional acts).

Let us finish with one last quote from Nielsen who asks if methodological naturalism is a good policy, in reply he states that it comes from a tradition of philosophy which has tried to explain reality via metaphysics, that has tried methods other than the scientific to fix belief, what we “might reasonably take to be true or take for truth or to be warrantedly assertable” (p. 149). Nielsen states that, as the argument goes:

But, at least during the modern period with its extensive pluralism, there never has been with these other methods of fixing belief anything but local and temporary agreement with no progress in the direction of reflective and informed consensus… The scientific method, though through and through fallibalistic, works and carries with it a considerable consensus about its working. So if we want to be reasonable we will stick with the scientific method and leave metaphysics to spirit-seekers and other crazies. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 149)

How well methodological naturalism works as a worldview will be addressed later. Of course this blog is only very short and shallow in its descriptive content, but the discerning reader will see there will be problems with questions of meaning and morality with a scientistic worldview, even if it is nonreductive, these issues and more will be addressed later.

Reference

Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Criticisms Of Cosmological Naturalism.

December 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Now that we have looked at defining and very basically defending the view of cosmological naturalism let us turn to some criticisms of it. When the cosmological naturalist states, to put it rather crudely, but accurately, that nature is all, we see that, as Jean Hampton states we have no understanding of what naturalism is, no notion of the natural, or what natural entities are or what a nonnatural entity is or what makes a theory scientifically acceptable or unacceptable. (p. 138)  and Nielsen might add, that it is hard to find those answers without begging the question.

Nielsen sets the scene by stating: “Naturalism sets out to accept only natural categories and to reject all supernatural or transempirical categories and to show how this is justified…” (p. 154) Hook and Nagel at least (as well as Dewey) as we have seen were proponents of an antireductionistic naturalism; “Of course, if in its aversion to reductionism, it simply says whatever we encounter in whatever way is natural, then, to put it minimally, little is accomplished.” (p. 154) To Nielsen we need some way to demarcate the two positions of ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ or ‘nonnatural’  to show that “the former alone are real or nonillusory.” (p. 154) Traditionally naturalists had simply stated that their “basic category was matter or material substance” (p. 154) and this alone had independent substance, the problem has been that the current developments in physics has made such an explanation “nonexplanatory”. To get around this Hook and Nagel have changed the definition of “material” to “refer to ‘the subject matter of the physical sciences.” (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2001, p. 155) Other naturalists have more recently articulated the basic categories of naturalism as: “event, relation, and quality and it is the factors of process, quality and relation ‘which contemporary naturalism takes to be the constituents of all that occurs, of all that exists.'” (Nielsen quoting Dennes, 2001, p. 155) This definition works, so the argument goes, because on such an account the explanation of a natural event does not require an external grounding or cause, on this view only other events could cause events to occur as “the constituents of all that is real are events, relations or qualities and the processes that go with them. (Qualities and relations being qualities and relations of events). When we ask for a cause on such a view we are asking for some “stretch of natural processes (a distinctive relation between events) and an explanation of events could only be found in the qualities and relations of such events.” (Nielsen, quoting Murphy, 2001, p. 155) The charge of circularity is in this definition too states Murphy, in that it is tautologically, and thus trivially so “if events, qualities, and relations are basically, or in the final analysis, the constituents of all there is. If this naturalistic claim is right then nothing else at all could serve as an explanation (Murphy 1963, 207). (Nielsen, quoting Murphy, 2001, p. 155)

So the fundamental naturalistic claim, Murphy has it, is the momentous one that “nature is all that natural processes (including those of human living) do not imply anything beyond themselves and do not require for their existence or for their explanation any grounds but the further stretches of natural processes which we observe or inductively refer or to be their contexts, that in the world in which there is one event (that is, in which anything happens) we can distinguish and significantly infer or speculatively suppose nothing, but further events and their relations and qualities” (Murphy 1963, 207 quoting Dennes 1944, 288). (Nielsen, quoting Murphy, 2001, p. 156)

From here Nielsen asks how one might justify such a claim, as he states we would not want to simply and arbitrarily stipulate it as so, nor would a naturalist want to take it as dogma, or as a synthetic a priori truth (that we somehow know by intuition). Nielsen asks, that to see these claims as “very general empirical hypotheses we would have to be able to say what it would be like for them to be false or at least to be able to say what it would like to infirm them. (p. 156) Can we do this? How would we go about doing this? Again as we will see, in finding our way around this dilemma we come up against the charge of circularity yet again, for example, Nielsen asks how we can know that the only existents are event, relation and qualities? We can’t intuit it, if we state it as an empirical claim we must then provide its testability, truth or at the very least assertability conditions, and also we would need to determine what would need to be the case for that statement (about relations and qualities) to be false, or disconfirmed, or infirmed. We cannot say that an observation of a supernatural substance is disconfirming (directly or indirectly Nielsen states) as the naturalist would “deny that that could be a genuine falsification or disconfirming instance because such substances are not discoverable or in any way ascertainable by the use of the scientific method – even in principle by the use of the scientific method.” (p. 157) Nor are they he continues “observable or inferable from what is observable.” (p. 157) What does Nielsen mean here? He states that no such “spiritual substances are recognizable or acceptable or even coherently describable given such categories.” (p. 157) This too might appear as question-begging, in that we seem to a priori be ruling out other assumptions (say Christian or Aristotelian ones), Nielsen says, combating this that we want our categories to fit the facts, and our naturalistic categories do just that, but yet again the question returns “how do we know or even warrantedly believe that is so?” (p. 157)

Do we just intuit it? Do we without categories just observe it to be so? But how can we possibly make such observations? Moreover, and perhaps more fundamentally, what do we mean when we say a set of categories fits or fails to fit the facts? We have little in the way of lucidity here. Indeed it does not look like we have anything coherent here. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 157)

Moreover Nielsen states we could look at our categories as a fundamental linguistic framework or proposal concerning “how to talk and how to conceptualize things” (p. 157) and of course we can and should ask why we should accept this, with question-begging following us all the way down.  One possible hope for this quagmire is in what Nielsen calls the “Kantian-historicist” turn or the “historicist-Kantian” turn,  what is this?

Naturalists should not take “The only existents are qualified and related events” as a synthetic statement, either empirical or a priori, of the way things are, or worse still of the way things must be, however tempting the former may be, but as a fundamental proposal about how best to describe things at a very basic level and to conceptualize the world. We should not be fooled by its surface grammar into thinking it makes sense to take it as anything other than a proposal about how to conceptualize and categorize the world. There are, we should realize, just different ways of talking and coping with things, things, none of which are specifiable or even thinkable independently of some particular conceptual framework with its categories, which are not found but somehow “chosen” – perhaps as the result of “historical choices” – choices made, and in return repeatedly modified, over a long period of time which by now are so firmly socialized in us that they do not feel like choices at all. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 158)

In this we seem some of what will be articulated as Nielsen’s social naturalism, that is a naturalism located within a human context (in this case largely a historic one), with principles coming naturally from human development. There are Nielsen states however, problems even with this turn in that it opens us up to what he calls “linguistic idealism” which forces this supposed answer into being a reductio, and we need to head back to the drawing board to find a “proper form of naturalism”.

This might be a good time to leave it here. There are of course more rebuttals and criticisms to follow, which I may do after my next post on methodological naturalism. At the very least we see there are logical problems even at the definitional level with (some?) naturalism(s?), and the use of science as part of an atheistic worldview, this is why philosophy can be important to us. Without it’s guiding light, these questions are left to naturalisms detractors, with nary a response. To be consistent, to be robust, we need to tackle these questions, and most importantly, to be justified, we need to answer them.

Reference

Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Cosmological Naturalism.

October 27, 2013 Leave a comment

In breaking down and analyzing the naturalism of Hook and Nagel, Nielsen first defines where the discussion on naturalism is at this stage; he hopes to distinguish between four species of naturalism that is “cosmological (worldview) naturalism, methodological naturalism, ethical naturalism and scientistic naturalism (the last being principally a subspecies of methodological naturalism exemplified paradigmatically by Bertrand Russell and W.V. Quine).” (Nielsen, 2001, p. 135) Nielsen states  that all of these naturalisms have a common belief (except necessarily ethical naturalism) that “everything belongs to the world of nature and can be, and indeed should be, studied by methods appropriate for studying that world.” (p. 136) Nielsen covers all four naturalisms but today we will focus specifically on Ernst Nagel’s cosmological naturalism.

1. Cosmological (worldview) naturalism is at least a putatively substantive view which holds that everything is either composed of natural entities or is dependent for its existence on natural entities. In so speaking of naturalism, the aim is to capture the distinction between (putative distinction) between the natural and the supernatural, where “nonnatural” or “supernatural” refers to such things as the objects of many of the distinctive and central beliefs and conceptions of theism, deism, idealism, to noumena the elan vital, spirits, and the like. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 135)

Nielsen states that Nagel’s conception of this type of naturalism (a naturalism he, that is Nagel, Hook and Dewey hold to) does not make claims distinct from scientific claims or a scientific world-perspective, Nagel et al then are proponents of scientism (or at the very least a naturalism congruent with such), though they are not reductionists, that is they (Nagel, Hook and Dewey) reject reductionist physicalist or materialist worldviews. Nielsen states that this is not a philosophical naturalism to Nagel, one that is distinct from science that outlines the underlying presuppositions of science in some “sort of independent ontology or metaphysics” (p. 140); Nagel (along with Quine and Rorty) would reject such metaphysical attempts. It is important to note, that it seems Nagel at least was not dogmatic in this naturalism, that is he saw that it “merely formulates what centuries of human experience have repeatedly confirmed” (Nielsen quoting Nagel, 2001, p. 140) moreover he takes it to be a “sound generalized account of the wold encountered in practice and in critical reflection.” (Nielsen quoting Nagel, 2001, p. 140) We might ask, what else did Nagel’s cosmological naturalism hold to?

It is a view that goes beyond a purely methodological one, a methodological view utilizing fixing belief what he and Hook – both following Pierce and Dewey – call the method of scientific intelligence. It proffers in addition a substantive view “on things in general” (Nagel, 1956, 6). It is “a generalized account of the cosmic scheme and of man’s place in it, as well as a logic of inquiry” – so we have in Nagel’s account both what I called a cosmological and a methodological naturalism. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 140)

Nielsen states though that the logical status of this cosmological naturalism (we will address Nielsen’s thoughts on methodological naturalism in another post) is “rather puzzling for, unlike idealist, realist or Kantian metaphysical worldviews, it does not claim to be a priori true or to be established by pure reflection or logical demonstration.” (p. 140) It has, as Nielsen puts it no transcendental grounding, and moreover rejects man as being in some position of special philosophical knowledge. As the discernible reader will tease out here, there is a seeming inconsistency, after all this view is not a claim of the sciences, but, as Nielsen states: “there is no such thing on their view as a special philosophical claim or way of knowing that could yield some knowledge not attainable by science or serve as a ground for a guardianship or a monitoring of science. It has no such Kantian pretensions.” (p. 140)  This naturalism is not a theory like Newtonian mechanics provides a theory of motion states Nielsen, nor is it looking to create a ‘First Philosophy’, a grounding of special knowledge that science cannot determine or that justifies the grounding for the theories of the sciences, nor are they admits Nagel scientific statements themselves. We are right to be, with Nielsen, confused here, we might ask how this cosmological naturalism makes any sense. It is clear Nagel et al want to shirk philosophical traditions in metaphysics, they also want to plant their naturalism in the idea of an empirical-hypethetico-deductive method to investigate claims, and have ‘man’ as the center of that worldview which focuses on the natural world (problems with the natural/supernatural split will be covered later), but how does Nagel juggle all these balls convincingly? He proposes two theses central to naturalism, (1) “the existential and causal primacy of organized matter in the executive order of nature”, and (2) that of pluralism rather than monism. Before we get to those lets see how Nagel sets the stage:

The account of things proposed by naturalism is a distillation from knowledge acquired in the usual way in daily encounters with the world or in specialized scientific inquiry. Naturalism articulates features of the world which because they have become so obvious are rarely mentioned in discussions of special subject matter, but which distinguish our actual world from other conceivable worlds. The major affirmations of naturalism are accordingly meager in content; but the principles affirmed are nevertheless effective guides in responsible criticism and evaluation. (Nielsen quoting Nagel, 2001, p. 141)

From this “distillation” we get our two theses, let us deal with them in turn, starting with (1):

This is the assumption that the occurrence of events, qualities and processes, and the characteristic behaviors of various individuals, are contingent on the organization of spatio-temporally located bodies, whose internal structures and external relations determine and limit the appearance and disappearance of everything that happens. (Nielsen quoting Nagel, 2001, p. 141)

Moreover Nagel adds “that this is so is one of the best-tested conclusions of experience”. Nielsen states as we have already seen that this is not a reductive materialism or even a reductive naturalism as it contains talk of relations of meaning, or modes of actions, joy, plans aspirations and such which are not (as such) those material bodies or indeed “organizations of material bodies”. How might this still be a naturalism? Especially of the species Nagel espouses?

 [What naturalism espouses] as a truth about nature is that though the forms of behavior or functions of material systems are indefeasibly parts of nature, forms and functions are not themselves agents in their own realization or in the realization of anything else. In the conception of nature’s processes which naturalism affirms, there is no place for the operation of disembodied forces, no place for immaterial spirit directing the course of events, no place for the survival of personality after the corruption of the body which exhibits it. (Nielsen quoting Nagel, 2001, p. 142)

What about Nagel’s second thesis? Nielsen states that according to Nagel, in line with what has been stated there is no “ground-floor, fundamental stuff, no homogeneous reality, no substance that makes up the universe or transempirical substance that underpins or grounds the universe or is constitutive of the universe.” (p. 142) To Nagel there is a causal link between discrete things, but no substance by which all of them inhere. Nagel’s naturalism is neither atomistic nor monistic but pluralisitic “where the links between the different things that make up the world are contingent and they are constantly changing.” (p. 142) We can see in Nagel’s naturalism a rejection of reductionism when we see that to him:

Human traits and human beings as well as other animal life and indeed nonanimal things are not everlasting and are “dependent on a balance of forces that doubtless will not endure indefinitely” (Nagel 1956, 8). All things including organisms are as much a part of the “ultimate” furniture of the world as atoms or neutrons or stones, or stars or water. None are forever, nor are any of them “the ultimate stuff” (as if we understood what that meant), and all are part of integrated systems of bodies, including ones such as biological organisms “which have the capacity because of their material organization to maintain themselves and the direction of their characteristic actives’ (Nagel 1956, 8). Irreducible ‘variety and logical contingency are fundamental traits of the world we actually inhabit.” (Nagel 1956, 9). (Nielsen, 2001, p. 142)

Nielsen states that it is in such a framework, offered by Nagel that naturalism “envisages the career and destiny of human beings.” (p. 142)

As ths post is getting a little long, I will leave a simple presentation of cosmological naturalism here, and will draw out some possible criticisms and weaknesses in my next post.

Reference

Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Categories: Philosophy, Science, Secular

Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion': Basic Terminology.

October 7, 2013 Leave a comment

It seems appropriate when looking at a book with naturalism in the title to begin our discussion with a look at naturalism; starting more generally, working our way to the specific naturalism Nielsen puts forth. Thusly, what is Naturalism?

Naturalism denies that there are any spiritual or supernatural realities. There are, that is, no purely mental substances and there are no supernatural realities transcendent to the world or at least we have no sound grounds for believing that there are such realities or perhaps even for believing that there could be such realities. Naturalism has sometimes been reductionistic (claiming that all talk of the mental can be translated into purely physicalist terms) or scientistic (claiming that what science cannot tell us humankind cannot know). The more plausible forms of naturalism are neither across the board reductionistic nor scientistic.  (Nielsen, 2001, p. 29)

(I will go into more detail on Nielsen’s discussion on reductionism and scientism in another post.)

Nielsen continues stating that (where consistent) naturalism is a type of atheism, although it “need not be a militant atheism and it should not be dogmatic: it should not claim that it is certain that theism is either false or incoherent.” (p. 30) This fallibalism however does not mean that a naturalist should be an agnostic, that is; to be consistent such a naturalist would be “an atheist arguing, or at least presupposing, that theism is either false or incoherent or in some other way unbelievable.” (p. 30) To Nielsen naturalism is incompatible with belief in God (or a belief that God exists), therefore a naturalist cannot be an agnostic: “saying, as agnostics do, that we do not know, or perhaps even cannot know, whether or not God does or does not exist. In accepting naturalism, a naturalist is also accepting that there is no God.” (p. 30) Nielsen is quick to add however that the spirit of fallibalism is at the heart of a reasonable naturalists philosophy, that is they will “argue for atheism in a fallibalistic, and sometimes even moderately skeptical, manner: a manner characteristic of modernity including that peculiar form of modernity that some call postmodernity.” (p. 30) A naturalist should be sceptical as in the fashion of Hume, that is in a “limited and moderate sense”, although they should not, and indeed cannot be a sceptic “through and through”; moreover, Nielsen adds, that a sceptic, “limited or otherwise, need not be a naturalist, atheist, or even an agnostic as the fideistic stances of Pascal and Kierkegaard brilliantly exemplify.” (p. 30) As stated Nielsen puts a high premium on fallibalism, stating that whether or not a sceptic, a naturalist will be (if she is reasonable) a fallibalist, “but that notwithstanding, still an atheist. “Dogmatic atheism” is not a pleonasm and “fallibalistic atheism” is not an oxymoron.” (p. 30)

As a small digression here, it might be important to note that to Nielsen there is not a sharp distinction between atheism and agnosticism, that is atheism is defined as:

In speaking of an atheist, I refer to someone who rejects belief in God either (a) because she believes that it is false or highly unlikely that God exists, (b) because that the concept of God is incoherent or so problematic as to make such belief impossible or irrational, or (c) because she believes that the term “God” is being used in such a manner that it is so devoid of substance as to make religious belief, rhetorical effects aside, indistinguishable from purely secular beliefs except for the fact that religious beliefs are associated with certain religiously distinctive stories which in turn are stories which (on such an account) the religious believer, though she must entertain them in a vivid and lively way, may or may not believe. (Nielsen, 2001, pp. 56-7)

From this Nielsen adds the atheist bases her rejection on how “God” is being construed by religious people; moreover Nielsen defines his personal atheism as that of someone who rejects (i) anthropomorphic conceptions of God on the basis of (a), (ii) belief in the God of developed Judaism, Christianity, or Islam on the basis of (b), and (iii) purely symbolic conception of God such as Richard Braithwaite’s and R.M. Hare’s on the basis of (c). (Nielsen, 2001, pp. 57)

Continuing on Nielsen states that most naturalists reject the conception common to the Abrahamic theisms (“where they are being even remotely orthodox”, p. 31) that “human beings are sinful, utterly dependent on God, and can only make adequate sense of their lives by accepting without question God’s ordinances for them.” (p. 31) Moreover such a naturalism rejects that particular conception of human beings as well as the associated morality that comes with those beliefs. Naturalists believe that people can “make sense of their lives and reasonably order their lives as moral beings without any belief in God or any other spiritual realities.” (p. 31)

Nielsen states that naturalists engage in both critique and explanation of religion, and that in some cases, if successful, such investigation also becomes a critique of religious belief and practice. Some critics of naturalism such as Robin Horton have stated that naturalistic explanations of religion simply “explain religion away and are superficial to boot.” (Nielsen quoting Norton, p. 31) Nielsen agrees with Horton that Bertrand Russell’s and Baron d’Holbach’s critiques are such examples that align with Horton’s view, but others such as Ludwig Feuerbach and Emile Durkehim (both of whom Nielsen draws on quite heavily in his chapter: “Naturalistic Explanations of Religion“) do not. Nielsen argues that a naturalistic conception of religion will “explain religion as a function of human needs and of the conditions of life which give rise to those needs.” (p. 31) Nielsen does ponder what if anything would constitute an adequate naturalistic explanation of religion, citing Marx Wartofsky who states “that a viable conception of religion is one which doesn’t explain religion away, but rather explains its origins, its distinctive cultural and historical forms, its persistence in various institutions, its changing contexts and development, its continuing and present existence in the modes of belief and actions of individuals.” (Nielsen quoting Wartofsky, p. 31)

Of course I am being very vague in what a naturalism might be about, after all the number of different naturalisms Nielsen looks at reflects the large number of thinkers who have discussed, defended and criticised this philosophical tradition. It becomes difficult to define any particular naturalism as Nielsen spends much of the book comparing the naturalisms of a wide range of thinkers, against their critics, and each other; some naturalisms on offer are Nielsen’s own social naturalism, Nagel’s methodological naturalism, Hook’s pragmatic naturalism, Dewey’s (et al.) ethical naturalism, Quine’s cosmological naturalism etc. Made all the more confusing when we see that many of these thinkers held more than one naturalism to be true, or very likely true, or espoused subcategories or situational naturalisms that amount to the same thing (e.g.: “Nagel characterized his naturalism as a contextualistic naturalism and Hook characterized his as an experimental or pragmatic naturalism, though as we shall see, they come to much the same thing.” Nielsen, p.138), there are even cases of some theists holding to some form of naturalism (as in the cases of Jacques Maritain, Richard Neibuhr, and C.S. Pierce), obviously these would be very nuanced positions to both hold to the title naturalism and for these thinkers to retain their theism.

It might be better, now that we have very simply touched on some of the basic ideas of naturalism, that is its varieties, its relation to atheism, fallibalism etc, we can explore different naturalisms, what Nielsen thinks of them, how strong they fare against their critics, and some of the outlier issues involved in this worldview such as the pragmatists tendency to drop metaphysical talk, the rejection of reductionism and scientism, and Nielsen’s own use of verifiability principles.

Reference

Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape': Specific Reflections.

October 4, 2013 3 comments

What about reflections more specific to Harris’ theory, that is the so-called “is/ought” problem:

The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume famously argued that no description of the way the world is (facts) can tell us how we ought to behave (morality). (p. 10)

Harris states the problem as an issue between ‘facts’ and ‘values’, that philosophers and scientists such as Hume, G.E Moore, Jerry Fodor and Karl Popper have “fallen into the trap” (p. 10) of creating a firewall between facts and values, by thinking there is a problem here.  Scientists often study the “is” Harris states, that is they study “human happiness, positive emotions, and moral reasoning, they rarely draw conclusions about how human beings ought to think or behave in light of their findings. (p. 10) Moreover Harris states that it is generally considered “intellectually disreputable, even vaguely authoritarian” (pp. 10-11) for scientists to suggest that their work has implications for the moral life of others. Harris considers this kind of thinking to be a “faith in the intrinsic limits of reason” (p. 11) Harris believes that the divide between facts and values is illusory in at least three senses:

  1. whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures – which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value – must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large;

  2. the very idea  of “objective” knowledge (i.e. knowledge acquired through honest observation and reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon the principles that we must first value (e.g., logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony etc.);

  3. beliefs about facts and beliefs about values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain: it appears that we have a common system for judging truth and falsity in both domains. (Harris, 2010, p. 11)

To Harris, defining goodness in terms of well-being reduces the gulf between facts and values, in that well-being will be tied to the experience of conscious creatures,  and thus part of natural laws and discoverable by science. (p. 13)

What can we say here? Nielsen 2001 might be able to help us again,  in his discussion on the meaning of life in his book ‘Naturalism & Religion’, Nielsen states:

… we want an answer that is more than just an explanation or description of how people behave or how events are arranged or how the world is constituted. We are asking for is a justification of our existence. We are asking for why life is as it is, and not even the most complete explanation and/or description of how things are ordered can answer these quite different question.  The person who demands that some general description of man and his place in nature should entail a statement that man ought to live and die in a certain way is asking for something that can no more be the case than it can be the case that ice can gossip. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 109)

Nielsen continues, pace Harris, that no statement of fact about how we in fact do live can, by itself, be sufficient to answer the question of meaning and in Harris’ case, morality.  “No statement of what ought to be the case can be deduced from a statement of what is the case.” (p. 109) It is important to note that when we say cannot get an “is” deduced from a ought”, we are saying that we logically cannot.  In defending his moral view, that of “wide reflective equilibrium” (which will be discussed in an upcoming post on his book) Nielsen does agree with Harris insofar as there is “no moral difference without a factual difference”, when we critique Harris, it is not so much that his moral theory relies on facts, as much as it reduces all morality to facts, and facts only. There seems to be no reason why we need to restrict ourselves to a seemingly fallacious mode of thought, that, even if not fallacious, ignores “the plausible fit between our various moral judgements and actual beliefs, including for us our reflective beliefs about the (for us now) best established “substantiative and methodological elements of empirical science.” (Nielsen, quoting Railton, 2001, p. 220)  We can, and according to Craig and Moreland 2006 should use philosophy as a second-order discipline, that is a discipline that discusses primary schools of thought (such as, say, the facts of science, and other schools), to draw out the logical and otherwise philosophical implications of the facts we find in our world. Simply reducing values to facts in such a scientistic way by Harris, seems to miss a whole gamut of reflective experience that could influence the so-called moral landscape.

References

Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.

Moreland, J., P., Craig, W., L. (2003). Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL,  Intervarsity Press.

Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape': Abstract Reflections.

September 26, 2013 Leave a comment

In this series now we have looked at Sam Harris’ moral landscape very briefly (see here), and looked at some other terms, clarifications and confusions (on our part and others, see here). Today, I plan to offer some simple reflections, there has been great critical engagement with his theory by far better thinkers than me in other places (see Shook here, Benson here and Carrier here). Today I’ll start with some more abstract thoughts on Harris’ theory and philosophical assumptions, specializing to some more specific problems with his theory in another post.

Harris only attempts a definition and defence of physicalism at a very shallow level, and without critical engagement:

A dualist who believes in the existence of immaterial souls, might say that the entire field of neuroscience is beholden to the philosophy of physicalism (the view that mental events should be understood as physical events), and he would be right. the assumption that the mind is the product of the brain is integral  to almost everything neuroscientists do. Is physicalism a matter of “philosophy” or “neuroscience”? The answer may depend on where one is standing on the university campus. Even if we grant that only philosophers tend to think about “physicalism” per se, it remains a fact that any argument or experiment that put this philosophical assumption in doubt would be a landmark finding for neuroscience – likely the most important in history.  (Harris, 2010, pp. 179-180)

It is unclear how to specifically engage and indeed understand what Harris’ base assumptions are here, it seems he follows some kind of physicalism, but of which branch or brand?  It is clear it contains reductionism, and as Nielson 2001 states it is hard to imagine how we could have a reductionistic physicalism that relies on the sciences as it’s base without it being just another metaphysical (and dogmatic) system, a material one that replaces a theistic one, what Nielsen calls a “scientific mythology”, that is most importantly, not continuous with science, hence internally inconsistent. (pp. 57, 61) The problem is his reductionism and scientism is linked or perhaps even grounded in his physicalism, with that in mind, what are we supposed to make of his defence of reductionism and scientism?

There is no denying, however, that the effort to reduce all human values to biology can produce howlers. (Harris, 2010, p. 48)

Not much there.

From here Harris addresses why a scientific morality need not be a simple evolutionary account, that it would include “the totality of scientific facts that govern the range of conscious experiences that are possible for us.” (Harris, 2010, p. 49) And, he does address his scientism too:

Charges of “scientism” cannot be long in coming. No doubt, there are still some people who will reject any description of human nature that was not first communicated in iambic pentameter. (Harris, 2010, p. 46)

But does one really need to be with him, or someone who gets their morality from scripture? Given that there are a plethora of secular moral theories which do not rely purely on the sciences for their dictums, it would seem not (Mackie, 1977, Martin 2002 for examples). And that goes to the problem with Harris’ assumptions, if not his theory, he assumes there is no atheistic, even naturalistic position that would disagree with him. Not only has he avoided giving his theistic, idealistic opponents a fair treatment, but he has not given his naturalistic ones one either.

None of this engages with what are serious concerns about the grounding of his theory in coherency. One might argue his is a pragmatic case to make, that the functionality of neuroscience to explain brain mechanisms and resulting behaviour is supported by both practice, theory and indeed praxis. But, and although it would seem the stronger case to make, with a great philosophical and naturalistic tradition (in Quine, Dewey, Hook, Pierce etc), Harris ignores a pragmatic approach to his naturalistic moral theory, instead seeking at a shallow level to defend the strongest and some might argue, incoherent form of physicalism, that is linked to scientism and reductionism. What about intersubjectivity, and the social aspect of humans? Nielsen argues that we are not just biological machinelike beings, explainable only by the hard or natural sciences, rather a holistic explanation of morality needs to include a macroscopic view that includes descriptions of us as “irreducibly social beings and the human animal as a self-reflecting animal.” (p. 57) We want to include in our worldview explanations that cater to all of reality; are anthropologists studying reality? Are cultural theorists? Are political scientists? Are economists? These are not hard sciences, if they are sciences at all, but it is hard to believe these people aren’t studying reality, and that their investigations have nothing to say about morality. Harris, by definitional fiat, is ruling out that these people will have anything to say; this is dogmatic physicalism of the kind even atheists can, and indeed should reject, at least insofar as Nielsen (an atheist philosopher) would argue.

Obviously these thoughts are not conclusive, and to many, not even on point. Of course they aren’t meant to be decisive, and I am a fallibalist after all, I of course could be way off.

References

Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.

Mackie, J., L. (1977). Ethics: Inventing Right And Wrong. Strand, London. Penguin Books.

Martin, M. (2002). Atheism, Morality And Meaning.  Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape': Subjectivity V Objectivity.

September 15, 2013 Leave a comment

After looking at some basic terms, very briefly (see here), I want to turn now to something which may seem peripheral, and maybe it is, but is of interest to me nonetheless. What am I speaking about? Relativistic v objectivist morality, and some misunderstandings about it, and where Harris might land on either issue.

Moral Relativism

As stated in the last post, Harris’ thesis is about setting up a moral system that is objective, and based on truth – that is – not relativistic, subjective, and thus not simply relying on the whims, or preference of any given person or culture on any given day.

Moral relativism, however tends to be self-contradictory. Relativists may say that moral truths exist only relative to a specific cultural framework – but this claim about the status of moral truth purports to be true across all possible frameworks. In practice relativism most always amounts to the claim that we should be tolerant of moral difference because no moral truth can supersede any other. And yet this commitment to tolerance is not put forward as simply one relative preference among others deemed equally valid. (Harris, 2010, p. 45)

Harris goes further than this, he states that the motivations for relativism lie in the intellectual reparations for Western colonialism ethnocentrism and racism (p. 45), this being the only “charitable” thing he can say about it.

Later on in his book, the last page in fact, Harris in recognizing some of what anthropologists and cultural theorists might say about the state of relativism, states that it is not subjectivity that is the problem for a moral theory, at least as far as the scientists who study the brain are concerned. No, it is the belief (among those scientists) that there is no intellectual justification for “speaking about right and wrong or good and evil, across cultures.” (p. 190)

Much of this of course might be considered a caricature of what relativists, of any breed- be they anthropologist, atheistic philosopher, Post Modernist (theistic? After all a divine intelligence is a mind is it not? Would a moral law given from such an intelligence be considered simply divine relativism?) or otherwise – might say. He does not engage much with relativistic challenges to his theory, instead choosing to make common sense points, rather than referencing. This is a book written at the popular level however, you may choose to give it wriggle room for that, or not.

The challenge of subjectivity, and what it means to knowledge of all types is a serious one, that many philosophers have struggled with (see here, here, here, here, here). Heidegger, Patocka, Husserl, Foucault and Post Modern thinkers working in that tradition such as Heise are all concerned with how the phenomological, subjective experience is taken into account with theories of objectivity, as Patocka states, theories that situate us in the third person, or as Foucault might say, theories that ignore power relations. It would have been nice to see stronger engagement with this philosophical challenge.

Objective/ Subjective

To further draw out what Harris might mean though let’s turn to what he means when he uses the terms ‘objective’ and subjective’, and indeed ‘absolute’. Harris thinks that many people are confused about what scientific objectivity might mean:

As philosopher John Searle once pointed out, there are two very different senses of the terms “objective” and “subjective”. The first sense relates to how we know (i.e., epistemology), the second to what there is to know (i.e., ontology). When we say that we are reasoning or speaking “objectively”, we generally mean that we are free of obvious bias, open to counterarguments, cognizant of the relevant facts, and so on. This to make a claim about how we are thinking. In this sense, there is no impediment to our studying the subjective (I.e. first-person) facts “objectively. (Harris, 2010, p. 29)

From this Harris uses the analogy of his tinnitus to show that although this is a subjective experience, he is being “objective” in the sense that is he is not lying about his tinnitus, this is not preference or bias. He states his experience can be confirmed by an otologist, which suggests his tinnitus has a third-person (objective) cause that can be discovered. Moreover Harris states that much of the sciences of the mind are predicated on being able to “correlate first-person reports of subjective experience with third-person states of the brain.” (p. 30)  From here Harris states that many people think that just because moral facts relate to experience and are thus “ontologically subjective” all talk of morality must be subjective in the epistemological sense, that is biased, or merely personal. Harris doesn’t think this is so. He doesn’t deny that there is a subjective realm of experience in regards to his talk of objective moral truths, or objective causes of human well-being. He is not saying moral truth exists independently of the experience of conscious creature either, or that some actions are intrinsically wrong. What he means to say is:

I am simply saying that, given that there are facts – real facts – to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions. (Harris, 2010, p. 30)

Finally, Harris makes the distinction, that is not always obviously delivered in say, debates on morality between atheists and theists, that there is a distinction in moral talk between ‘objective’, that is in either the epistemological or ontological senses discussed above and ‘absolute’, in which a moral truth is so and has no exceptions (see Moreland & Craig, 2003 for an equivocation between absolute and objective). We can speak of morals Harris thinks in objective terms, without speaking about them in absolute ones.

Many people seem to think that a universal conception of morality requires that we find moral principles that admit of no exceptions. If, for instance, it is truly wrong to lie, it must always be wrong to lie – and if one can find a single exception, any notion of moral truth must be abandoned. But the existence of moral truth – that is, the connection between how we think and behave and our well-being – does not require that we define morality in terms of unvarying moral precepts. (Harris, 2010, p. 8)

Reference

Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.

Moreland, J., P., Craig, W., L. (2003). Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL,  Intervarsity Press.

Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape': Primer.

September 6, 2013 2 comments

I’ve read this book a long time ago, since then my perspective has changed, and after some interactions with friends on Facebook in which it was brought up again, I decided to give it another read. I’m not entirely sure what I want to say about it, if I had any major criticisms, but I know I do want to catalogue some notes, some account of what it is Harris is saying in his book, for my notes, and to refer to later on.

It might be best to start with Harris’ main thesis, which he states:

I will argue, however, that questions about values – about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose – are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering etc. The most important of these facts are bound to transcend culture – just as facts about physical and mental health do. (Harris, 2010, pp. 1-2

To Harris human well-being depends on “events in the world and on states of the human brain.” (p. 2), and although he doesn’t anticipate a complete understanding of all the complexities and nuances of moral problems, he does propose that his theory will force people to deal with moral reasoning constrained to the (scientific) facts. Morality and values will become a discussion about facts of the brain, about how thoughts and intentions arise, and what those mental states will mean in terms of behavior; terms like “good” and “evil” will be exhausted by the science governing the analysis of these states.  As the man himself states: “I will argue that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.” (p.4)  Harris makes his motivations clear, in that at least in part he is looking to solve the problem of relativism, that is specifically moral relativism from the secular left and the “scriptural literalism” of the conservative right, he wants an objective morality that is not based on supernaturalism.

The Moral Landscape

Throughout the book Harris discusses several terms, which we might now like to turn to and define, for the sake of clarity, firstly, the Moral Landscape:

Throughout this book I shall make reference to a hypothetical space that I call “the moral landscape” – a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving – different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government etc. – will translate into movements across this landscape, and, therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing. I’m not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question or a single best way for human beings to live. Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent. However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery. (Harris, 2010, p. 7)

Harris anticipates that some may find this term vague, but he argues there are analogies we can use, that of food, in that there is no one food that is right to eat, yet there is an objective difference between food and poison.

Peaks and Valleys

Although we covered this briefly above, let’s draw out some more detail on these terms:

Even if there is a thousand ways for these two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive – and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of well-being and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.  (Harris, 2010, p. 41

Harris’ theory is aiming, in consequentialist fashion (a topic for another blog) to map out a formula to provide a way to find the most amount of happiness for the most number of people, and although he admits there will be “practical impediments” to finding that route there will be moral equivalencies on such, and in turn many peaks on his moral landscape. That is a point that needs special attention, Harris seemingly respects that different cultures and people might have different ways to reach a moral peak, to feel fulfilled in life, but the unifying factor is the moral theory he is proposing; you feeling you have different values, may also be a way to a peak on the moral landscape (it would of course need to be evaluated). The grounding of a science of morality in conscious states, with “the worst possible misery for everyone at its depths and differing degrees of well-being at all other points – seems like the only legitimate context in which to conceive of values and moral norms.” (p. 41)

Well-being

Another term we might like to look at is that of “well-being” a term that Harris admits is difficult to define, but through analogy Harris explores how we might use it: that is, in reference to physical health. To Harris physical health is a term that is indispensable, yet is constantly open to revision (think of what might have been considered healthy in the dark ages, compared to now) similarly so too is well-being. Although there might be ‘valleys’ and ‘peaks’ on the moral landscape, we must define that which is good as integral to well-being. It might be reasonable to ask from here why this is so, and what specifically composes this ‘good’ Harris speaks of. Harris thinks, that when we ask, for example if pleasure is good (or should be maximized), we are really asking if it is conducive to some deeper form of well-being, and although some may question whether it makes sense to maximize pleasure in any given sense, it makes no sense to ask if maximizing well-being is thus. This admits that there are answers to the question of well-being, even if we aren’t sure what they are, but most importantly, it ties “notions of goodness to the experience of sentient beings.” (p. 12)

Harris anticipates and respects the objection that some may not accept that values or morality have anything to do with well-being, or rather that some may possess some skewed form of well-being that is hostile to the well-being of others, he states this objection is at the heart of many peoples doubts about moral truth. To this objection Harris states that consensus, that is in moral or scientific discourse does not hold that every opinion is valid, that for some reason people who do not accept our moral goals make the act of looking for such incapable. To further draw this point out Harris looks at Biblical Creationists in science, now, they may claim to be using science, but as Harris states “real scientists are free, and indeed obligated, to point out that they are misusing the term.” (p. 34) Similarly those concerned with moral discourse whose moral principles cause tremendous suffering, nothing predisposes us to simply saying these people have distorted values. Going further Harris asks if people would attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death?” (p. 36) Harris thinks that although someone is allowed to raise such an objection as this, it doesn’t mean we need to take it seriously. Harris admits we all possess intuitive moral reasoning, but much of this is wrong, and only genuine moral experts will posses a “deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being.” (p. 36)

Reference

Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.

Categories: Atheism, Ethics, Philosophy, Science
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