Monday, August 13, 2007

Armchair science and the naturalistic fallacy

Suppose someone were persuaded by the philosophical argument that you can’t get an ought from an is. It seems to me that one could respond to this argument by saying that to say that is really armchair science. “Look, we are learning all these things about the brain. We are learning what kinds of behaviors helped our ancestors to survive in the past. We have learned this, that, and the other from chimp studies and other aspects of primate science. How can you say that you can’t get an ought from an is?”
It seem to me to be obvious that that is an inadequate reply, a gross missing of the point. There seems to be a confusion of categories here. So why when I argue that there is a problem getting a cognitive ought from a physical is, I am accused of armchair science?

12 Comments:

At 8/13/2007 06:45:00 PM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

There are two responses I'd consider making as a naturalist.

A. Moral realist naturalist
Both arguments make the same mistake: assuming you can go from concepts to ontology. Just because 'is' and 'ought' have different meanings, that doesn't mean they are different extensionally. While you may not 'mean' to give a complicated factual description of social facts when you use 'oughts', they are extensionally equivalent (just like cavement didn't intend to talk about H20 when they described water, but they were doing so just the same). The same goes for arguments about conceptual gaps between the mental and the physical.

So indeed you are right to see the parallel, but miss the point that in each case the antinaturalist is mistakenly going from meanings to ontology.

B. Moral nonrealist
Minds are real, while moral perspective is painted on the world by our brains the way colors are painted on the world by our brains. So we are left with the problem of the mental as naturalists. And I have yet to see a convincing argument against the naturalization of minds (other than appeals to our ignorance of how mental and neural facts relate to one another, and appeals to our 'concepts', which I addressed in A).

I tend to go for option B, but someone like David Brink would go for A.

You could also be a full blown eliminativist about minds and cognition-independent moral facts, but I think nobody is in that camp and it shouldn't be taken seriously.

 
At 8/13/2007 06:49:00 PM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

It's not even armchair science. It's armchair philosophy. I don't see where actual scientific results come in except as an abstraction. Not something that you can get away with doing philosophy of space and time. But we are so young in this science of minds that there just isn't much there to go on but abstractions. This is why present day philosophy of mind will look naive and cutesy in a couple of hundred years.

 
At 8/13/2007 10:15:00 PM , Blogger Doctor Logic said...

Great question, Victor.

In originally had a 10 paragraph answer, but I condensed it into one line:

"Oughts" are a matter of taste, and taste is no great mystery for naturalism.

I think that's sort of what bdk said in his answer B. (I have no idea how one can be both a naturalist and a moral realist.)

 
At 8/14/2007 06:45:00 AM , Blogger Darek Barefoot said...

Victor

I think that earlier you tried to make an argument from authority to the effect that if a variety of thinkers of some prominence in cognitive science and philosophy of mine, thinkers without bias against naturalism/physicalism, see a difficulty assimilating subjective experience to a naturalistic model of the world, then we have good reason to second guess ourselves if we think the problem is easily and simply solved. "Getting an ought from an is" can be treated the same way. If I'm reading you correctly, it's an argument for caution and careful attention.

Another question you implicitly raise is, "What can we assume about the limits or lack of limits to what science in the future may tell us?" I believe that all of us harbor certain assumptions about what science can or cannot discover, or at least is very unlikely to discover, in the future. Most of us assume, for example, that science will not discover that the scientific method is worthless as a means to knowledge or that the human brain/mind is incapable of understanding nature.

 
At 8/14/2007 07:33:00 AM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

I have no idea how one can be both a naturalist and a moral realist.

It is fairly common, and I spelled out how in A. Check out the amazing book MOral realism and the foundations of ethics by David Brink.

I think Darek is right that humility and caution are called for right now, both in matter moral and subjective.

 
At 8/14/2007 01:05:00 PM , Blogger Hiero5ant said...

IMO the difference between lazy, dogmatic, uncompelling accusations of the naturalistic fallacy in analytic metaethics and the ones that actually have some teeth is that the latter are typically accompanied by positive theses about what moral talk amounts to, cashed out in terms of familiar, everyday ontology.

If the positive thesis of emotivism or some other variant of expressivism is correct, then we have just such an explanation for why it is that oughts do not follow from ises. That "Shut up!" cannot be derived from "You are talking", or "Yuck, carnivory!" from "Burgers are made of meat", is very plain and nonmysterious. The expressivist's authority to declare the naturalistic fallacy a fallacy is no more "armchair science" than any grammarian declaiming upon the proper agreement of plurality between subject and verb.

 
At 8/14/2007 06:48:00 PM , Blogger Victor Reppert said...

The problem I pose is this. It's a point William Lycan has made on various occasions. Faced with the inability to go from on naturalistic is to a moral ought, naturalists very often respond by going subjectivist. When going from a naturalistic is to a rational ought they are far less inclined to go subjectivist. And it's not hard to see why. They don't want to say that the superiority of the scientific method to the reading of tea leaves is just a subjective preference. But the entailment difficulties seem to be the same in both cases.

 
At 8/14/2007 08:07:00 PM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

I don't think it's the same. In one case the guiding norm is truth (or empirical adequacy for the antirealists), and that is easier to naturalize than the guiding norm in ethics, which is moral goodness or some such. I can empirically show you that certain candidate inference rules suck, because they lead from true premises to false conclusions (this holds even for statistical inference). But how would you show someone that their moral evaluation function is defective, if it leads to the conclusion that killing puppies is morally obligatory?

 
At 8/16/2007 05:09:00 AM , Anonymous Steve Lovell said...

I actually think there are several illuminating parallels between ethics and epistemology. I've certainly learned a lot about both Rule Utilitarianism and Reliabilism by comparison of the two. And there's also the recent rise in the popularity of virtue theories in both areas.

As Victor has pointed out, in epistemology the concerns over evaluative terms are concerns not over truth but justification and rationality. So while I agree that truth (or some surrogate) may be naturalised, it's the status of our methods of justification which is at issue.

BDK has it that these can be justified empirically. This seems true, but I'm not sure it will give him the distinction he's looking for between ethics and epistemology. After all, he's assuming he can know "in advance" which conclusions are false when he says

"I can empirically show you that certain candidate inference rules suck, because they lead from true premises to false conclusions."

I agree that we can spot these bad inference forms, but what if we had more widespread disagreements about what is true and who counts as an authority, I'm not sure we'd be so confident, which suggests BDK hasn't found much disanalogy here except at a sociological level.

Actually, I'd go so far as to suggest that there are such widespread disagreements. It's just that they are fewer in number within our own peer group, and that where those disagreements are within our peer group we're often willing to modify our knowledge claims to claims of mere justification or even mere belief.

Steve

 
At 8/16/2007 07:39:00 AM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

I agree that we can spot these bad inference forms, but what if we had more widespread disagreements about what is true and who counts as an authority, I'm not sure we'd be so confident, which suggests BDK hasn't found much disanalogy here except at a sociological level.

Compare to:
So while I agree that truth (or some surrogate) may be naturalised, it's the status of our methods of justification which is at issue.

I'm not sure what to make of the two claims above. I agree with the second, but justification is all about truth preservation, so if we can naturalize truth, then justification just becomes the study of what patterns of inference preserves this property.

 
At 8/16/2007 11:57:00 AM , Anonymous Steve Lovell said...

BDK,

I have perhaps expressed myself badly. Alternatively, I may I rather misread your original claim. The more I think about it, the more it seems likely that I've misread you, in which case: apologies.

When you say

"I can empirically show you that certain candidate inference rules suck, because they lead from true premises to false conclusions"

Do you mean to say something like: "I've got a set of cases here, and in the majority of cases where method X is used, they've ended up with falsehoods, therefore, method X is a bad method for belief formation."

Or is it rather:
"For any/some method X which is a bad method for belief formation, I can convince you that it's a bad method by showing you all the false beliefs it leads to."

If you mean the former, then I withdraw my previous complaint, but then I suspect that you and Victor will be talking past each other. If you mean the latter, I think your point is merely sociological, as your ability to convince depends on what I already believe.

Steve

 
At 8/16/2007 03:53:00 PM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

I'm talking more about linguistic patterns of inference, as you find in science, math, logic. Their relations to beliefs, belief fixation, and inferences operating over beliefs is not clear, so I tend to avoid such considerations.

My views on the relation between logical truths and the empirical sciences is basically expressed by Gila Sher in her two articles Logial Consequence: An epistemic outlook and Is logic a theory of the obvious?. Especially relevant is her diagram on page 570.

I prefer to defer to her work, as whenever I try to summarize it I end up doing a worse job than if I just quoted her!

 

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