mandag 17. september 2012

Against Empiricism.

From time to time hard-nosed scientists claim that philosophical questions are either pseudo-questions or in the final analysis scientific questions. Presently philosophy is having a hard time justifying its existence, certainly among the sciences, so it is not surprising that ideas (or attacks) like these are being launched. Stephen Hawking'sThe Grand Design and The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris are just two recent book titles from the top of my head. Lawrence Krauss' book, A Universe from Nothing (which I haven't read yet), seems to be another one, judging by what the author says in this discussion with the philosopher Julian Baggini. Discussions like these are inevitable philosophical discussions, certainly not scientific discussions, and much of what is being said, frankly, is not very impressive.

"I do think factual discoveries can resolve even moral questions," answers Krauss when Baggini protests that this is never possible:
Take homosexuality, for example. Iron age scriptures might argue that homosexuality is "wrong", but scientific discoveries about the frequency of homosexual behaviour in a variety of species tell us that it is completely natural in a rather fixed fraction of populations and that it has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts. This surely tells us that it is biologically based, not harmful and not innately "wrong".
If science has discovered that homosexuality is biologically based, has it also discovered that there can be nothing innately "wrong" about it? Krauss seems to think so. But this only follows if nothing biologically based can ever be wrong. I take that to be obviously false; at least it cannot be taken for granted that everything science deems "natural" is morally O.K. -- that remains to be investigated. And science cannot help us in this investigation. Which questions science can answer for us, after all, isn't itself a scientific question. Whether factual discoveries about biology ever can settle a question of right or wrong, cannot itself be settled by a factual discovery. Questions like this must be approached with moral sensibility, "seriousness of mind" (to borrow Baggini's phrase), and, of course, we need some examples to think about. As I said, if we bother to do investigation, I take it, it would become quite obvious that Krauss' argumentation is muddled. Take murder, for example. According to one Iron age scripture "Thou shalt not kill." But looking at the frequency of violent behaviour in a variety of species suggest that violence is completely natural. Murder looks biologically based in some sense. Does it therefore look like there can be nothing innately "wrong" about it?

I am not arguing that homosexuality is wrong. Far from it. I completely agree that it isn't; for me this isn't even a question. What I am saying, though, is that I don't agree for scientific reasons. Think about it: If science were to stumble on counter-evidence, suggesting that homosexuality isn't as "natural" as we now assume, would you automatically fall back on condemning it? Facts of nature simply doesn't determine our moral thinking in this way. It is rather the other way round. Our moral outlook determines which parts of nature we deem good and which bad. -- I am not denying that facts of nature and scientific discoveries may help shaping our normative thinking in certain ways (morality, after all, isn't isolated from the rest of our thinking), but not in the straightforward fashion Lawrence Krauss imagines.

But Krauss says more startling things than this. For example this:
We have an intellect and can therefore override various other biological tendencies in the name of social harmony. However, I think that science can either modify or determine our moral convictions. The fact that infidelity, for example, is a fact of biology must, for any thinking person, modify any "absolute" condemnation of it.
Krauss seems to regard it as thoughtless to condemn your spouse if catching him/her cheating on you. Your instant reaction would certainly be angry, but calm down and give it a little reflection and you will realise that condemnation would be inappropriate. The argument isn't that every unfaithful spouse has good reasons to be unfaithful. Reasons like that can be imagined. If a woman had been forced to leave her lover and into a marriage with a man she despised, I think it could be both insensitive and not very understanding to condemn her adultery. But such contexts have nothing to do with it, on Krauss' account. Infidelity is, as he puts it, a fact of biology, therefore it would be thoughtless to condemn any transgression in absolute terms.

Calling infidelity a fact of biology sounds confused to me. Part of the problem is that "infidelity" so evidently is a moral term. If infidelity were a fact of biology, we should expect to find it all over nature. But can we even imagine science discovering infidelity among cats, chimpanzees or penguins? That's not only unlikely, it would be a misuse of language to say something like that. Calling chimpanzees unfaithful you are either moralising the behaviour of wild animals or you are using words from the moral language without their familiar contents. Calling polygamy a fact of nature, sounds less wrong. But then Krauss' moral conclusion reveals itself as a non-sequitur. From polygamy being a fact of biology it simply doesn't follow that "any thinking person must modify any absolute condemnation of infidelity". Krauss' argument, it seems to me, consists, at least in part, of nothing more than mixing up moral and scientific terms.

When Krauss argues that being a biological tendency is a reason for modifying any absolute condemnations of infidelity, I guess the underlying thought is that we can only hold someone entirely responsible if their actions are absolutely free. Since we often act according to hard-wired neurobiological tendencies, "[a] retreat to moral judgement too often assumes some sort of illusionary belief in free will," says Krauss. I will not deny that this may be true in certain cases, but can this really be the default position? Let me put it like this: Is it true that whenever we hold someone responsible for whatever they do, we do so only because we tend to overlook the undercurrent of biological and psychological urges that splashes around underneath everyone's conscious and rational minds? If I caught you cheating on me, would your explaining yourself in terms of "biological tendencies" make me less prone to condemn you? Not likely, as that would be my first guess -- if you didn't want to sleep with this man, why on earth do it? Had you not desired to sleep with him, but, say, been forced to bed, that would have provoked a different reaction. If true, that explanation would (I certainly think it should) replace my anger with something like pity. But explaining that you simply desired to sleep with him, wouldn't have anything like that effect. If this is what Krauss argues, then his moral intuitions simply are alien to me. To me this looks like sheer nonsense. What angers me, after all, is that you gave in to your desires.

"If I don't know what my actions will produce, then I cannot make a sensible decision about whether they are moral or not." And as we never can be absolutely certain what our actions will produce, the implication of what Krauss says, is that we never can make sensible decisions about whether our actions are moral or not. Or, that isn't entirely true, actually. Having seen the consequences we can always look back. What we cannot do, according to Krauss, is assessing the moral value of any actions beforehand. Applied, again, to the infidelity case, this suggests that whether cheating is wrong or not depends entirely on the spouse's reaction. If my wife is furious, then my adultery was wrong; if she is understanding and smiling, I have done nothing worth mentioning. This is ridiculous. Consequences are often important in morality. But Krauss has taken this truth and gone wild with it. It doesn't fit reality, nor does it sit well with other things Krauss says himself. Just a moment ago he said that my wife, as far as she is a thinking person, couldn't condemn my infidelity because this is a biological fact. Now he seems to suggest that if she do condemn my action, that reaction of hers would make my adultery morally wrong, and thereby prove that condemnation would be the appropriate reaction after all....

What is morally good simply cannot be a question of results alone, certainly not a question of what produces "social harmony" (whatever Krauss takes that to be). In that case we would have reasons for condemning infidelity, rape, violence, xenophobia, racism -- or any other of the so called natural human traits -- only if they disturbed social harmony. If they served some idea of social harmony, rather than disrupted it, however, we would be without reasons for complaints. This surely is turning everything up-side down. Morality isn't a servant of social harmony. What serves social harmony doesn't determine what is morally good. Au contraire! Morality, I argue, is the judge by which we decide what sort of social harmony is worth pursuing.

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