Post No.: 0023
This post follows directly on from Post No.: 0012 about the way that science cannot answer ‘why’, or purpose and meaning, type questions…
Science is also the tool to use for answering what something ‘is’ but not always what to do about it – science cannot always tell us what we ‘ought’ to (morally) do. Science isn’t in the business of making normative value judgements. ‘Methodological naturalism’ is aimed at addressing descriptive questions about how things work, not normative claims. Frequently, if not invariably, ‘ought’ answers are merely subjective opinions that we can try to justify but science cannot ever definitively objectively justify. Moral values don’t or can’t always emerge in an obvious way from facts (e.g. someone is in severe irremediable pain – does this mean euthanasia or prolonging their life is the ‘right’ thing to do? If it’s voluntary suicide then it’s one’s own life, yet whatever one does contributes to the surrounding culture/it affects other people too. Or an embryo is a living organism but an unwanted child has an elevated chance of having low life prospects – so is abortion ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? How do we even objectively choose the operational definition of when something begins to be ‘alive’, ‘sentient’ or ‘intelligent’?)
The set of moral values we adopt often has very little to do with what we know about the world because that’s how values work, and our justifications for them can be empirically unfalsifiable too because they don’t relate to physical claims (e.g. we feel that it’s connected to some universal or transcendental feature of the universe that cannot be seen but just ‘felt within the gut’ – but science doesn’t concern itself with ‘feelings’ of what is right or ‘feelings’ of what is true). Yet being drawn or deeply committed to these sorts of moral claims is arguably an unavoidable part of being human. Our ‘strong/moral evaluations’ (the values or beliefs we will not personally tolerate if violated) come from our emotions more than from reason, because reason cannot always answer these concerns. And these background emotional beliefs aren’t ultimately objectively justifiable by science (even though many people may mistakenly believe they are or can be).
There are a wide variety of value judgements possible and many have an inherent incommensurability e.g. is national security more important than individual privacy? Security concerns life or death but some things are considered worse than death e.g. a shame or humiliation that causes a person to rather take his/her own life. Freedom versus equality is a classic dilemma in governance. What about freedom of expression versus the freedom to incite violence or spread lies? Or universal human rights versus individual state, culture or person rights i.e. should it be ‘one rule for all’ or ‘each can make their own rules’? There are many dilemmas that science or logic cannot objectively resolve. How you prioritise one human right over another when they directly conflict with each other in zero-sum will come from subjective emotional arguments because there is no objectively correct or single logical answer in these cases. It’s like asking if a heavier ball is better than a longer stick when you can’t have both? It’s incommensurable.
If we don’t know what’s objectively objective then which option is more reasonable or rational? And because science cannot always provide these ‘ought’ answers – even our secular ethics, which try to be objective and rational and based on facts and reason, need to be justified somehow – by ultimately using metaphysical claims that we cannot empirically verify or therefore rationally defend, or by using strong emotional arguments about how the world ‘should’ be. Human rights are a metaphysical entity; they are metaphysical beliefs (we cannot scan a brain to see a person’s human rights, at least yet, if ever) – this entity, these beliefs, ultimately come from basic human cognition combined with culture (such as the prevailing or historical normative religion of a country).
Even with all the data about how the world works, we cannot always determine objective moral values e.g. science cannot objectively answer whether utilitarianism is more moral than libertarianism (an optimised society versus individual rights) – how does one answer dilemmas like the trolley problem? (Something that autonomous vehicles will need to contend with.) Should one cut up a healthy person to donate his/her organs to save five other people who need five different organs? It seems pretty rational to sacrifice one person to save five but most people would find this option abhorrent. Is the torturing of suspects okay if it could save more lives? So just because something seems rational, does it make it right? Do ends always justify means? Science can possibly tell us that something maximises overall joy or minimises overall suffering in a society, but ‘maximising’ or ‘minimising’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘fair’, however the terms ‘fair’, ‘joy’ or ‘suffering’ are defined without being subjective (science and numbers (or any other current language) cannot fully describe what it’s like to feel many things such as joy, pain and other emotions, or what it’s like to see the colour green or red, for instance (qualia)). In philosophy, what does it mean to lead a ‘good’ life? Woof.
In many cases, particularly in the social sciences, the operational definitions we choose for things that we call ‘objective’ or ‘scientific’ can be highly subjective! For instance, what measure should we use to measure the well-being of a nation? Indeed, is suffering always bad (e.g. intense exercise)? More fundamentally, why does scientific research tend to rely on a 95% probability for a statistically significant result and not e.g. 99.3% or 90.345%? Why about 5 sigma rather than e.g. 7 or 3.42 standard deviations from the mean? That specific benchmark for confidence is arbitrary itself, not objective! Widely-accepted/popular norms or conventions don’t make them objective – these can change over time, place or culture (although ‘widely-accepted/most popular’ might be, in principle, the best we can practically do). Questionnaires that assign points to answers can give us numerical scores, but just because something is presented as quantitative data, it doesn’t necessarily make it objective (e.g. the questions themselves were likely subjectively worded and asked, and arbitrarily weighted and assigned particular scores).
How emotionally angry an individual feels reveals how much their personal values and worldviews are being questioned in a way they don’t really like. Believing in diversity is commendable, yet it contradictorily means we cannot be tolerant to those who are against diversity(!) We become hypocritically intolerant to intolerance. Okay, so we should value diversity up to a point, but where we draw this point or line will be defined by our own moral commitments and so will be subjective. Many things are relative i.e. can only make sense if compared to something else, so how can we make absolute conclusions about things that aren’t absolute?
So there is no escaping metaphysical claims in some way or another if we’re going to make normative claims of what is ‘moral’, ‘ethical’ or ‘right’. And in fact, without emotions, many even day-to-day decisions cannot be made or would take a ridiculous amount of time to analyse in a completely reasoned cost-to-benefit manner and make (e.g. what exactly to eat for today’s dinner or what exact music one should listen to has no objective answer).
We could go straight to the top – there’s nothing in objectivity or empirical science to even say that the human species ‘ought’ to have existed, never mind exists above other animals in the animal kingdom – it was just chance that e.g. all non-avian dinosaurs got wiped out to make way for the small mammals that eventually led to Homo sapiens to flourish, never mind anything that follows or is ‘supposed’ to follow regarding the human species ever since. Life as a whole on this planet only exists because of a series of chance events and conditions, and there is no meaning in chance, never mind any objective meaning or ‘ought to be’ answers to anything else that has ever followed regarding life since. So it’s not objective to say that the meaning of life and what we all ought to do is go through education, stop education then get a career, get married, mortgage a house, have and raise children then retire, for instance. The universe doesn’t ought to always have humans existing in it – the universe will just carry on regardless, maybe just like it did before.
Science can tell us things like whether the Earth is flat or not, but science does not tell us things like whether we ought to save human lives or not. When an organism dies, its nutrients have a chance to go and feed new life, and what’s wrong with that? There is more-or-less a consensus borne from human instincts that we should save human lives but that’s only because humans are biased towards humans – after all, humans don’t extend this ‘ought to save’ value equally to other animals or plants (e.g. flies or worms, even though these creatures are vital for the planet’s flora and fauna ecosystems from a scientific perspective). Consensuses or other ways of achieving standardised values can include democratic decisions when it affects entire populations, hence science can say what something is but politics is often necessary to decide what to do about it, if anything (whether you believe in libertarian, centralised or any other flavour of politics) i.e. we will never escape the need for politics as long as more than one person must try to live together.
Therefore science can answer naturalistic questions, and then religious or quasi-religious beliefs, or certainly non-empirically verifiable or non-objective beliefs, are used to try to answer moral ‘ought’ questions. This combines with the way that science cannot answer existential ‘why’, or purpose and meaning, questions. But both these sorts of questions are vitally important to answer for us all to function harmoniously in a civilised world (e.g. to decide our laws, including secular ones). In a world of subjectivity, we must somehow find common grounds; a majority or consensus. Empirical evidence and logic can and should be used to bolster our arguments (there may not always be singularly right answers but there are certainly wrong answers i.e. not every stance is justifiable), but in these specific cases they cannot ever definitively answer these sorts of questions absolutely objectively.
I sincerely hope no one will interpret anything the wrong way and think that everything is relative or subjective, or that with those things that are subjective and deadlocked in heated disagreements we should not bother possibly meeting in the middle or finding some other common ground, compromise and resolution in order to move forwards in a pragmatic sense. (If I understand humans well enough, I kind of worry that some of the things I write about in some of my posts will be misunderstood ever so slightly and then misappropriated by a subset of people – if everything is properly understood then empathy with other people who hold differing views to us should increase, thus reducing aggressive or violent approaches or agendas from any side. It’s not ‘good versus evil’ – just one opinion versus another.)
My furry hope is that everyone will understand deeply the difference between what is subjective versus objective, opinion versus fact, and therefore reduce the arrogance of when one mistakenly believes one is being objective when one is actually being subjective. If you understand all this properly then you’ll understand why there are perennial disagreements such as regarding abortion rights or freedom of expression. They will likely never be resolved ‘once and for all’. This improved education and reduced hard-line arrogance will hopefully create more constructive and productive, more empathic and considerate, conversations between disagreeing parties. But of course, you don’t ‘ought to’ agree with me(!)
Woof! If your fuzzy head is aching after all that then please let us know via the Twitter comment button below. Or maybe sleep on it first!