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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Facts and values: a manifesto of sorts


I have previously linked to this piece which was published recently at The Electric Agora, but I think it is worth reposting here in full because it addresses in an accessible way some of the central principles which lie behind a naturalistic and scientifically-grounded view of the world.

My goal is to set out, as concisely and dispassionately as possible, the implications of a particular (and I think perspicuous) view of logic, language and human knowledge. The focus is on a distinction, implicit in ordinary language use, between value-based and other types of claims. There's nothing particularly unusual or original in what I am saying. It's the sort of thing that most non-religious, empirically-minded people would probably just take for granted.

For reasons which I don't fully understand, however, a cohort of later 20th-century and early 21st-century secular (or ostensibly secular) thinkers and polemicists have energetically sought to undermine this important distinction. On the one hand there is a tendency to talk down the objectivity of scientific and factual knowledge; on the other to affirm the objectivity (or something like it) of value claims.

Religious positions I understand and (to an extent) respect. What bothers me is obfuscation and equivocation in matters of belief. All too often (as I see it) some kind of quasi- or crypto-religiosity is brought into play when people start talking about human values. This sort of thing occurs in both academic and other contexts, and I have discussed it to some extent in the past on this site.

Not being sure of one's position is fine; but not being open about or not being interested in exploring or clarifying one's underlying commitments puts an end – as I see it – to serious thought and discussion.


Though we all obviously share a physical environment – a bluish, dirty-watery, middling sort of planet orbiting a medium-sized, middle-aged star – we live in very different worlds in terms of culture and so in terms of group-based and individual values. But what exactly does the existence of these multiple, and often conflicting, perspectives and value systems entail for our general view of the world?

Are there parallel realities here, one related to the physical world and amenable to scientific inquiry, others not? Is there, as it were, a realm of facts and a separate realm (or realms) of human perspectives and values?

You could see things this way, I suppose, but such a view is notoriously difficult to flesh out in a convincing way. My aim here is more modest, and is certainly not to defend a theoretically-based, clear-cut fact/value distinction or dichotomy. Rather I will sketch out a looser, more commonsense and ordinary language-based distinction about different kinds of claims: on the one hand, factual or scientific claims; on the other, value-based claims. Such a loose but significant distinction is implicit, I believe, in normal language use and central to a modern (and non-dogmatic) scientifically-oriented view of the world.

A key element of the distinction I want to make is that on basic value-related questions one can’t really claim to be ‘right’ in an objective sense – as one can about pragmatic, factual or scientific matters.

Sure, natural law theorists or those with Kantian or religious views about morality or Platonistic views about aesthetics will be unlikely to agree; I concede that I am making certain non-religious and anti-Platonistic assumptions. I am also making certain assumptions about science, notably about the lack of any clear-cut distinction between general factual and more specifically scientific claims.

My contention is that (unlike value claims) both ordinary factual and scientific claims can at least potentially be assessed and determined to be provisionally correct or incorrect (or somewhere in between, say partially true or correct, or true in certain circumstances) according to objective criteria involving some kind of observation (empirical evidence) and/or mathematical or logical reasoning. Mathematical claims or purely logical claims can be settled entirely by reference to those disciplines. Most other claims depend largely on a mixture of empirical observation and reasoning.

Many ordinary, non-scientific claims involve what linguists call deixis, that is they involve words or phrases the meaning of which is dependent on contextual information, e.g. personal pronouns like ‘I’ or ‘you’, adverbs of time like ‘now’ or ‘soon’, adverbs of place like ‘here’ or ‘there’ or demonstratives like ‘this’ or ‘that’. But even statements without explicit deictic terms are often hopelessly vague and indeterminate if they are taken out of a specific context or looked at in a non-contextual way.

Take the statement, “The sky is blue.” It could be used in a specific context to mean, “The sky (at the moment) is clear,” i.e. some bad weather or smoke haze or the like has passed or has not yet appeared. But as a general statement of fact it does seem slightly odd, and requires many qualifications.

Certainly the sky does appear to be various shades of what English-speakers call ‘blue’ (which corresponds to a range of frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum) to normal human eyes during daylight hours when there is no cloud-cover or other light-blocking phenomena. And, of course, we are talking not so much about a thing (what is ‘the sky’, exactly?) having a property as an experience a human with a normal visual system might have when they look upwards out of doors from the surface of their home planet.

Actually, of course, people don’t go around saying, “The sky is blue” to make a general claim any more than than they go around insisting (to use a Tarskian example) that snow is white. It is generally known that a clear, daytime sky appears blue and that snow is normally white, but general statements to this effect are not usually made. Why would they be? They are not scientific statements; and in ordinary life one would normally be inclined specifically to comment on the colour only if, say, it was not quite as expected, e.g. if there was an unusual tint in the sky or if the snow in one’s vicinity happened, say, to be especially pristine or especially dirty.

Actual scientific claims take us into a slightly more difficult area. For one thing they are theory-based. You could say that theory constitutes part of their context or background, not unlike the way a particular natural language and its associated culture provides a backdrop for ordinary factual claims.

The parallel is imperfect, however, because, like every human activity, the activity of science – even at its most abstract or theoretical – takes place within and depends upon a broader framework of natural language and ordinary human social life. That said, scientific claims are generally purged of the deictic elements which pervade ordinary linguistic communication. They are not perspective- or context-dependent (cf. Thomas Nagel’s ‘view from nowhere’).

Other questions arise. Are scientific claims, as a positivist might see them, just predictions about future observations or do they provide explanatory descriptions of a ‘real world’? You could also quibble with my use (above) of the words ‘true’ and ‘correct’. But I really don’t think I need to take a stand on the fundamental nature of science or delineate a ‘theory of truth’ in order to justify the sort of distinction I am making. As I said previously, I think this distinction can be seen to be implicit in the way we use language.

Take value-judgments now, and specifically aesthetic judgments. In contrast to making factual and scientific claims, expressing such judgments typically entails making claims that cannot be objectively assessed. Claims about what certain individuals or groups find beautiful can be checked against empirical reality, but actual claims to the effect that this or that action or thing just is aesthetically appealing can always be denied, whatever the arguments and however many people claim otherwise.

The counterclaim will simply be that the characteristics or features valued by others happen not to be characteristics or features which are valued by this particular individual (in general or in respect of a particular case). A slightly upturned nose (thought to be attractive in a woman) doesn’t appeal to everybody. Likewise skin colour preferences. Similar points can be made about natural objects and landscapes, etc..

Perceptions of physical beauty need to be understood in the the light of our evolutionary history as well as our individual developmental histories. With respect to perceptions of the human body, clearly sexual urges and instincts are involved, but the interplay between biology and environment can produce quite divergent outcomes.

Lorenz Hart summed it up in his lyrics for the song My Funny Valentine (“… Your looks are laughable, unphotographable…”). On the one hand, there is a clear awareness of common standards of beauty (“Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak?”); on the other, a statement of idiosyncratic personal preference (“Don’t change a hair for me, not if you care for me…”).

The fact that this sort of thing is real (and pervasive) is reflected in the common use of expressions like “There’s no accounting for taste”, or talk about people being “wired differently” etc.. (There isn’t and they are.)

People also have strong and highly divergent preferences in entertainment and the arts. But judgments about individual works need to be seen in a broader context of judgments about which general categories (movies, games, fiction, music, etc.) may or may not be of interest and, within these categories, which particular genres or styles or eras might be favoured by a given individual.

Sure, there can be a fair degree of agreement in scholarly circles: literary or musical scholars can rank certain works above others on the basis of technique and relative levels of complexity and sophistication (as well as other factors) but in the end subjective preferences do count, both in terms of judging works of comparable sophistication and in terms of the pleasure the works in question give. No argument, no matter how good, can make someone like a writer or composer they really hate, or hate one they like, though persuasion could raise doubts and questions, and, of course, increased exposure to the work of a given artist will often precipitate a reassessment.

Many divergences of taste clearly relate to individual developmental histories. Musical taste depends in large part on the kinds of music and other basic sound patterns that individuals have been exposed to in the past. For example, I am not musically trained and just like what I like. Avant-garde music doesn’t appeal at all. And yet I see others seeming to enjoy it, presumably hearing harmonies which I (with my more undeveloped set of expectations, etc.) am unable to perceive.

Scientific approaches to aesthetic questions – including attempts to interpret perceptions of beauty or ugliness in the light of our evolutionary history, individual developmental histories, or in more general terms of symmetries and expectations – will inevitably leave a lot out, but certain basic aesthetic perceptions and judgments are at least partially explainable in biological and psychological terms. Our perceptions are subjective but not arbitrary: certain constraints apply. And, while this is most clearly the case in respect of perceptions of the human body and physical objects, it is arguably applicable to all kinds of aesthetic judgment.

Morality is a more difficult topic, partly because it is an intrinsically vague concept. Moral judgments can overlap with aesthetic judgments (courtesy and politeness, for example, have both a moral and an aesthetic dimension) and also, I would claim, with prudential judgments. (My views here are more in line with Classical than Christian thought.)

Prudential claims could be seen to have a greater claim to being objectively true (or false) than purely value-based claims as they relate to observable effects. Consider proverbs, for example, which tend to have a pragmatic and prudential (rather than a strictly moral) focus. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive.” “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Pretty vague and sweeping, but you could conceivably finesse these sorts of claims into testable hypotheses. The same goes for other proverbs many of which (helpfully? – well, perhaps not…) even incorporate numerical values. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

By contrast to factual or prudential claims, we have, almost by definition, no way of testing value-based claims. Which human qualities are most to be valued (and encouraged), for instance? Individuals will differ in their views. Do we favour an ethic based on martial values of courage, strength and self-sufficiency; on justice and righteousness; or one based more on compassion and equality (i.e. a commitment to ‘social justice’)?

Or do we want to refuse to play that game altogether and adopt a ‘non-ethical’ (or amoral) ethic or perspective? (Machiavelli, Max Stirner…).

Politics and religion obviously come into the picture also, but it must be borne in mind that many religious and political claims are not mere value claims. Most traditional religious doctrines, for example, involve (sometimes testable) claims about how the world is. Likewise political ideologies (e.g. the social and economic predictions of various versions of Marxism or classical liberalism). So basic value elements often need to be isolated or disentangled from other elements.

But even if in many instances isolating the value-based elements is a difficult task, my central point stands, I think. We cannot demonstrate that someone making basic value claims which diverge from normally accepted standards is wrong or mistaken. The best we can do is to show them (if they are not already aware of the fact) that they are in a very small minority on the issue.

Of course, in the event of these anomalous views being associated with antisocial actions or behaviours, it is important that social mechanisms be activated to prevent (further) social harm. Nothing I’ve said here should be seen to deny or undermine this. Robust informal regulatory mechanisms exist in every functioning society. And, with respect to more formal mechanisms, it’s quite clear that efficient and equitable systems of law and law enforcement need not be in any way dependent on a commitment to notions of moral realism, natural law or natural rights.