Self-Expression, Knowledge and Value

by Mark English

Attempts to express a comprehensive personal view of the world are doomed to failure. Each of us has a view of the world; some such views are more developed and plausible than others. But language (even supplemented with other modes of expression) is simply not equipped to articulate the complex and shifting set of values and beliefs which creates and lies behind the way a particular individual sees and interprets the world.

What we can do is to express our views on and reactions to particular topics and particular things. What we can’t do is to tie it all together and articulate the whole, even in general terms.

There are a number of ways of looking at this. You could see it in terms of underlying logical coherence, for example. If a view of things had such coherence, it could be articulated accurately and concisely, at least in general terms. (1) But, given the fact that conscious reasoning constitutes only a minuscule portion of cognitive activity, there is no reason to expect – and every reason not to expect – that a person’s outlook on the world, with all its implicit value assessments, etc., would have anything like the degree of underlying logical coherence which would be necessary for its satisfactory articulation in linguistic terms.

Another way of looking at this is in terms of frameworks. A particular context is always required to provide a foundation for any statement or claim, and there is no general or generic context to which we can appeal. The broader the context, the less we can usefully (or even meaningfully) say. The danger here is that one gets lost in virtually meaningless abstractions and generalizations.

The most powerful forms of self-expression via written language are literary, and good writing in a literary sense is marked by specificity and concreteness and attention to the details of lived experience. Generalized claims and abstractions play only a minor role.

The impulse to express a comprehensive view has traditionally manifested itself in religious and philosophical contexts. But, as ways of understanding the world, modern scientific disciplines (including historical disciplines) have largely replaced religion and traditional metaphysics. You want to know about some specific thing? Go to the experts. Unfortunately, there are no experts to go to if you want answers to substantive questions about values or about the significance of human life, for example.

Individually we need to be committed to a set of values and beliefs in order to live. There is a huge range of possible belief and value systems, but an individual’s social and cultural environment narrows the possibilities somewhat. Beyond embracing the best available cultural elements (as one sees them) and applying principles of practical wisdom and commonsense, there is not a lot more one can do, other than ensuring that – as far as possible – one’s beliefs are compatible with scientific and scholarly knowledge.

It has become clear over time that scientific, empirical, formal and analytical methods represent the only reliable ways we have of building an objective or value-neutral communal knowledge base. Unlike our culturally-driven (and so values-driven) individual perspectives, this knowledge base is not only able to be articulated, it only exists to the extent that it has been articulated. It is necessarily public knowledge. (I use the word knowledge, but all claims are subject to challenge within the context of the disciplinary processes involved.)

Even here, however, the knowledge in question does not constitute a single thing or a unified structure, and so cannot be expressed concisely or in a unified way.

The term “edifice” is sometimes used to describe our communal knowledge base, but this metaphor is very misleading. In fact, it seems to me that one of the most significant things about human knowledge which the history of science and rigorous scholarship clearly demonstrates is its diverse and distributed nature. It is something of an irony therefore that champions of a scientific view of the world so often fall into the trap of seeing knowledge in unified terms.

Otto Neurath, who represented what might be called the radical wing of the logical positivist movement, was for many years the most prominent promoter of the notion of the Unity of Science. He clashed repeatedly with moderate figures in the movement such as Louis Rougier who strenuously rejected the notion, seeing in Neurath’s campaign an attempt to promote a creed, a new orthodoxy. Neurath’s view was an updated version of well-known 19th-century attempts to create a scientific socialism, and it was quite as censorious and illiberal as traditional religious orthodoxies, if not more so.

The attempt to promote a scientific creed continues to this day, of course, driven by a combination of arrogance and ignorance of intellectual history. But there is a difference between having a basically scientific view of the world and making science into some kind of creed or orthodoxy.

Things have changed in the arts and in non-scientific intellectual circles in recent decades, but not so long ago many of the greatest writers and artists and non-scientific thinkers had a very positive view of science, or at least accepted the general findings of mainstream science and rigorous scholarship. This is sometimes forgotten, partly because many of these writers and thinkers are currently out of fashion but partly also because the scientific or science-accepting side of many currently fashionable thinkers (Nietzsche comes to mind) is being downplayed.

As I see it, the fruits of science and scholarship belong to us all even though, as individuals, our actual knowledge is necessarily limited. Strangely enough, practicing scientists and scholars – because of the extreme degree of specialization which is required today – are no more likely to have a satisfactory general understanding than the interested observer, and the amateur will often have more time and energy than the specialist to devote to wide reading and to considering the implications of what is known.

I still have a very high regard for leading thinkers in scientific fields, especially fields (like physics and biology) which deal with fundamental questions of the natural world which have a bearing on how one sees or conceptualizes human life. But the more one reads their popular books or blogs or listens to interviews or to panel discussions, the more obvious it becomes that the special insights of scientific specialists rarely go beyond the scope of their areas of expertise.

For most purposes, of course, specialist expertise is not required, and useful or interesting conclusions can be drawn from very basic kinds of knowledge. Such arguments and elaborations may (and should, in my opinion) still be rooted in a view of the world which respects the findings of mainstream science and other rigorous forms of intellectual inquiry, but any argument involving matters of human significance (and so human values) necessarily goes beyond science and our empirical knowledge base more generally.

Some such elaborations have been developed with a view to expressing in a systematic way a particular view of the world. These (if my thesis is correct) cannot succeed. I have in mind, in particular, the sort of metaphysical systematizing which was in vogue in Europe, especially during 19th century.

Under the influence of thinkers such as Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege, more analytic and narrowly focused approaches gradually came to prominence and largely replaced traditional metaphysics. This analytical strand of philosophical thinking was very different in nature to almost all philosophical thinking before it in that it sought to bring academic philosophy more into line with scientific, formal and rigorous empirical disciplines; in other words to separate once and for all philosophy as an intellectual discipline from more traditional notions which saw philosophy as (at least potentially) providing guidance for living. Both Frege and Russell saw themselves as men of science (in the old European sense of the term). Russell was particularly scornful of the idea that academic philosophy should deal in any way with what was (and still is) popularly known as a “philosophy of life.”

In his intellectual autobiography Russell described the sense of freedom and liberation that accompanied his rejection of the idealist metaphysics which dominated the intellectual world in which he grew up for a more empirically-based view of things. The case I am making here is very much in line with a Russellian view. (2)

A great strength of Bertrand Russell as a thinker is that he was always aware of the way our personal values play into our thinking. Much of his published work is journalistic and opinionated. Arguably his views on education and some social questions were quite misguided. His views on power and politics still stand up, I think. But my point is that he drew a clear distinction between his serious philosophical work (from which he sought entirely to exclude his personal values) and the rest.

My focus here, however, is not science or the nature of philosophy, but rather on the relationship between science (broadly interpreted) and human values. Any attempt to articulate a value-driven point of view takes us beyond a purely scientific or rigorously scholarly space, albeit not entirely beyond the reach of scientific and scholarly expertise.

Even in the realm of rhetoric and persuasion, where personal values hold sway, the compatibility of any given position with mainstream science and rigorous scholarship remains an important litmus test. If a position or point of view fails the test, it can be excluded from consideration. But – fortunately or unfortunately – the bar is fairly low here, and the test in question lets through a vast array of mutually incompatible points of view.

The perspective I am putting forward is based in part on a particular interpretation of recent Western intellectual history. Certain thinkers have influenced me more than others, and any elaboration or defense of these ideas would necessarily involve the historical aspect: arguments about particular thinkers and about the relative merits of different ways of identifying and framing the main questions. (3)

Nonetheless, let me try to sum up my key points in purely non-historical terms. As individuals we slowly develop (or allow the ambient culture to develop for us) a general perspective or view of the world. Such a perspective cannot be fully articulated or satisfactorily summarized. It could be seen to express itself (via words and actions) in countless choices. These choices are practical and action-oriented rather than theoretical. They are responses to particular situations. Whereas individual perspectives can never be articulated holistically, values-based points of view on particular issues (which are driven in large part by an individual’s general perspective) can be articulated. They may be falsifiable, but are not amenable to positive scientific or academic validation.

NOTES

  1. There may be a parallel here with the way complexity is conceptualized in algorithmic information theory, i.e. in terms of the compressibility of strings or other kinds of data structure. Data can usually be compressed (to a greater or lesser extent), but arbitrary random data cannot.
  2. I am also drawing on Karl Popper’s general views on knowledge and falsifiability. Many of Russell’s and Popper’s specific views have been called into question, of course, and/or developed in various directions. Russell (at least) welcomed this. He saw himself as having made his significant contributions relatively early in his life and looked to others (initially to Ludwig Wittgenstein, and later to the logical empiricists) to move things forward. It is often asserted that the logical positivist movement 1) failed and 2) deserved to fail because the core insights of its main representatives were profoundly misguided. I question both of these judgments. Some of the ideas which drove the logical positivists were misguided. I mentioned Neurath’s ideologically-driven approach, for example. But the basic principles and perspectives on the scope and nature of human knowledge expressed in the writings of more moderate figures within the movement (like Moritz Schlick, Hans Reichenbach and Louis Rougier) are sound, and I am optimistic that they will survive – at least in modified forms which reflect ongoing changes in the scientific and intellectual landscape.
  3. Also, it is obvious that the general perspective on knowledge which I have been discussing (and defending) has social implications. Historically speaking, it has, by and large, been associated with anti-totalitarian social philosophies, and this is no accident. I would want to claim (though I am not attempting to make the case here) that such a perspective is naturally compatible with traditional liberal values and – if not strictly incompatible with – at least not supportive of extremist politics, either of the left or the right.

47 Comments »

  1. Mark, a few things about this essay, which is strong, well-written, and crystal clear.

    (1) I really dislike the way you reserve the word “serious” only for those things that are scientifically rigorous. For one thing, scientific rigor is not the only kind. For another, you simply assume that “rigorous” and “serious” go together, in the absence of any sort of argument to that effect. And it requires an argument. It isn’t obvious or even a matter of common usage.

    (2) You wrote: “This analytical strand of philosophical thinking was very different in nature to almost all philosophical thinking before it in that it sought to bring academic philosophy more into line with scientific, formal and rigorous empirical disciplines; in other words to separate once and for all philosophy as an intellectual discipline from more traditional notions which saw philosophy as (at least potentially) providing guidance for living. Both Frege and Russell saw themselves as men of science (in the old European sense of the term). Russell was particularly scornful of the idea that academic philosophy should deal in any way with what was (and still is) popularly known as a “philosophy of life.”

    = = =

    This is a correct summation of Frege, Russell and the Logical Positivists attitude. The trouble, of course, is that they were catastrophically wrong. Indeed, theirs is the attitude that led philosophy to try to ape the disciplinary profile of the sciences in the university, which subsequently doomed it to the irrelevance it suffers today. If philosophy dies, it primarily will be their fault. (Secondarily it will be the fault of those who have brought into philosophy rigid orthodoxies concerning social justice.)

    Socrates and Aristotle and had a much better understanding of what philosophy is about than Frege, Russell and the Positivists. Glaringly so. And they weren’t so enthralled by formal studies and natural science as not to see the immense value of engaging in philosophical reflection on the subject of how one should live one’s life.

    = = =

    (3) “You wrote: Unfortunately, there are no experts to go to if you want answers to substantive questions about values or about the significance of human life, for example.”

    = = =

    This is only true if one’s conception of expertise is limited to formal or technical disciplines. To suggest that one’s pursuit of such questions is not helped, enormously, by the likes of Montaigne and Dostoyevsky and Mill and Kant and Sartre etc, etc, strikes me as either unserious or confused.

    = = =

    (4) You wrote: “It has become clear over time that scientific, empirical, formal and analytical methods represent the only reliable ways we have of building an objective or value-neutral communal knowledge base.”

    = = =

    The role that Shakespeare plays in the films of Akira Kurosawa is a clear counterexample to this; one among many I could name.

    = = =

    These are negatives, but they really aren’t faults with the essay but rather, as I see it, with your perspective. You compartmentalize these subjects in a way that seems to me not only to do them a serious injustice, but in way that is simply false in light of their enormous impact on human life and experience.

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  2. Mark,
    I was trying to find a path into what is undeniably a well-written essay, when Dan’s comment appeared. I second the comment; it says much of what I was thinking.

    However, I do note that you have built in a reply to such criticism, in limiting the use we can make of science in certain forms of social discourse.The question then becomes, whether this reply is strong or weak. I will have to spend time with the essay to make my own decision as to that.

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  3. Thanks Dan for the positive remarks.

    With respect to the criticisms, I’ll take them slowly, one at a time, in separate comments.

    You write: “I really dislike the way you reserve the word “serious” only for those things that are scientifically rigorous.”

    I think I only used the word “serious” once in this essay – in relation to Russell who distinguished his serious *philosophical* work (from which he sought entirely to exclude his personal values) from his other writings. His other work may have been serious, but it was not (in his eyes) serious *philosophy*. Yes, he saw philosophy predominantly in mathematical and logical and, perhaps, scientific terms. There was a lot of talk about “scientific philosophy” in the early decades of the 20th century.

    I take it that your real concern here is with the nature and status of academic philosophy. I explicitly said that this was not my focus in the essay. But I don’t deny that accepting the point of view I am outlining would indeed have implications for how one saw academic philosophy.

    You have no basis for saying that I reserve the word “serious” for things that are scientifically rigorous. I’m not going back over my previous essays at this site, but I often use the word in other contexts. The arts, for example. Or journalism. Or criticism.

    “… you simply assume that “rigorous” and “serious” go together, in the absence of any sort of argument to that effect. And it requires an argument. It isn’t obvious or even a matter of common usage.”

    They do often go together in their normal senses. I would say that good or serious art necessarily involves some degree of discipline or rigor – but not scientific or mathematical or philosophical rigor, of course. Likewise serious writing (literature, criticism, journalism).

    As you say, there are different kinds of rigor. The context determines the meaning. (And the same applies to the word “serious”.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark: I expect us to have an extended exchange on this. To be clear, the essay is *very* good. Indeed, it’s precisely because it’s good that I think it so important to engage with critically. Because I think in an important way it’s wrong, and if people can see why, it will bring us a long way in understanding.

      Should say that I’m re-reading it, while listening to one of my favorite pieces of classical music: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 5 Variants on Dives and Lazarus. And I might be having a good single malt too. 😉

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  4. If it were not for Folk Music, many composers would have little material. Without the Composers, Folk Music would not be explored, As I listen to this recording, I search for feeling. Not only my own but that of others that may have experienced the same.

    Great Perspective.
    John

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  5. Nothing I have read in Neurath’s own words seems remotely radical to me, in fact his version of unity of science seems almost laughably trivial.

    He is not saying that there can be a single theory or even that theories must be reducible to a single theory.

    All he says is that they can be unified at the level of observer statements about physical objects.

    That seems obviously true. If two theories predict observable results that are inconsistent with each other then at least one must be wrong.

    And the motivation he gives for this is prosaic and practical – it is to enable disparate areas of science to work together on real life problems.

    The big stumbling block was the insistence that there could be a logically perfect language to express this, where no proposition could refer to itself and concepts like “a neighbour without a neighbour” could not be expressed.

    Gödel proved that this was impossible but it was Russell who led everyone down this particular garden path in the first place.

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  6. Dan

    “… This is a correct summation of Frege, Russell and the Logical Positivists attitude. The trouble, of course, is that they were catastrophically wrong.”

    You say they were “catastrophically wrong”; I say that they had a view of the world which had no room for traditional metaphysics and philosophical ethics (which had developed in medieval, Renaissance and modern times in a basically religious and theological context).

    “Indeed, theirs is the attitude that led philosophy to try to ape the disciplinary profile of the sciences in the university, which subsequently doomed it to the irrelevance it suffers today. If philosophy dies, it primarily will be their fault.”

    This is one way of looking at it. But what was called “philosophy” changed over time as various elements split off and became independent disciplines, like psychology in the late-19th century. You could see formal logic and metamathematics in similar terms.

    I think I understand what Frege and Russell were doing (trying to formalize arithmetic and to show that it could be derived from fundamental logical principles). Their work and the work of their successors led to great things, including a much greater understanding of the power and limitations of formal systems.

    “Socrates and Aristotle and had a much better understanding of what philosophy is about than Frege, Russell and the Positivists. Glaringly so.”

    This claim is far too ahistorical for me. The ancients were living in a different thought-world from ours. Sure, some things haven’t changed (like human nature) and so when Aristotle talks about practical wisdom or the theatre, for example, he is *almost* our contemporary. Not quite however. His views on teleology affect the way he conceptualized ethics.

    “And they weren’t so enthralled by formal studies and natural science as not to see the immense value of engaging in philosophical reflection on the subject of how one should live one’s life.”

    Their thought-world was conducive to seeing “philosophical reflection” as an independent and reliable source of knowledge.

    I believe in the value of reflection and reason, but we are more aware these days of how the brain works and (rightly) much more skeptical of our intuitions.

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    • I believe in the value of reflection and reason, but we are more aware these days of how the brain works and (rightly) much more skeptical of our intuitions.

      This is just the generative fallacy in action. As is much of what passes for “naturalized philosophy.”

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  7. “[Quoting me] “Unfortunately, there are no experts to go to if you want answers to substantive questions about values or about the significance of human life, for example.” This is only true if one’s conception of expertise is limited to formal or technical disciplines. To suggest that one’s pursuit of such questions is not helped, enormously, by the likes of Montaigne and Dostoyevsky and Mill and Kant and Sartre etc, etc, strikes me as either unserious or confused.”

    Nobody is (in my opinion) an expert on how one should live. This is not the sort of topic to which the concept of expertise can be applied. Do some people have more insights than others into human psychology etc.? Of course. Many writers do, and this is what makes them worth reading. It needs also to be remembered that judgments about particular writers and thinkers will differ – sometimes very strongly.

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  8. Dan

    [Quoting me] “It has become clear over time that scientific, empirical, formal and analytical methods represent the only reliable ways we have of building an objective or value-neutral communal knowledge base.” The role that Shakespeare plays in the films of Akira Kurosawa is a clear counterexample to this; one among many I could name.

    The arts are not, by and large, value-neutral. But nor am I claiming that human cultures don’t have common elements or interact and enrich each other. I am talking here about a value-neutral knowledge base of which the sciences constitute clear and paradigmatic examples but which also includes historical and comparative disciplines of various kinds, etc..

    I am being deliberately vague because there is no absolutely clear criterion to apply here. One can’t plausibly specify exactly what goes in and what doesn’t as value-neutrality or objectivity is not necessarily an all-or-nothing concept. It is often a matter of degree.

    These are negatives, but they really aren’t faults with the essay but rather, as I see it, with your perspective. You compartmentalize these subjects in a way that seems to me not only to do them a serious injustice, but in way that is simply false in light of their enormous impact on human life and experience

    You say “compartmentalize” (negative connotation); I would use a more neutral term (like “conceptualize”).

    And, as you know, I fully embrace the significance of the arts and (even more so) of the aesthetic dimension of the general culture.* In fact, this is (to a large extent, at any rate) where we find value.

    * The view I am putting is that values come with general culture (language, customs, manners, attitudes, etc.). There are certain biological “values” we share with other animals. But for us these biological values (like sex and enjoyment of food) are culturally enhanced or modified.

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  9. Robin

    I mentioned Neurath for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I know that he had a very extensive correspondence with Louis Rougier who had been commissioned to write a volume for the Unity of Knowledge encyclopedia on scholasticism which Rougier was an expert on. Rougier had been very critical of scholastic philosophy which had been having a revival. But – despite the fact that Rougier was very critical of scholasticism and so basically on the same side of this question as Neurath – Neurath wouldn’t let Rougier write the monograph as he wished to. In the end, Rougier gave up and accused Neurath of making the Encyclopedia into his own personal project.

    More broadly, Neurath was consciously emulating (as he saw it) the philosophes of the 18th century. His radical socialism was inextricably bound up (in his mind) with science. And this is precisely the area, I think, where the Enlightenment project was most flawed: i.e. in its attempt to encompass politics.

    This issue touches on my theme that our values (including political values) derive from sources other than science.

    You wrote:

    The big stumbling block was the insistence that there could be a logically perfect language … where no proposition could refer to itself and concepts like “a neighbour without a neighbour” could not be expressed.

    Gödel proved that this was impossible but it was Russell who led everyone down this particular garden path in the first place.

    Why are you so dismissive of Russell? His and Whitehead’s system involved an interesting attempt to avoid the paradoxes of naive set theory (one of which he himself discovered). Are you suggesting that the attempt should not have been made to formalize arithmetic and to ground it in more fundamental logical principles? It’s only because it was attempted that we came (through Gödel and others) to more fully understand the limits of formal systems. I won’t try to defend Russell’s other work here.

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  10. I am not being dismissive of Russell at all.

    And the garden path I refer to is not PM

    To have claimed to have created an axiomatisation of mathematics in which any proposition stateable within the system is also decideable in the system can be regarded as a highly distinguished contribution to mathematics which, as you pointed out, paved the way for the discovery that such a system wasn’t in principle possible.

    On the other hand, to suggest that there is a possible ideal logical language of atomic facts which can form the basis of a metaphysical description of the world can quite reasonably be described as a trip down the garden path, even if we only know this in hindsight.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Mark: I see you wrote some responses over at your blog. Since the conversation is already underway here, however, I am going to register my thoughts here:

    = = =

    1. Mark wrote:

    “I emphasized what I see as an unbridgeable gulf between science and human values. This idea is often ignored or strenuously resisted by those seeking to impose their values on others or merely looking for some confirmation or objective validation of strongly felt moral, social or political convictions.”

    – – –

    I would suggest that you not try and psychoanalyze your opponents and critics. And as I am one of the people voicing criticisms of your piece, here, let me say that neither of your characterizations are true of me. Nor, I suspect, are they true of E.J. or other critics here.

    The main negative effect of this sort of uncharitable caricature is on the person making it, as it prevents him/her from engaging with the strongest possible arguments against his/her view. And, as Mill so wisely observed, “he who only knows his side of the case doesn’t even know that.”

    – – –

    2. Mark wrote:

    “In a not dissimilar way, philosophers and other academics often speak as if their intellectual expertise gives them some special insights into substantive moral or values-based social or political questions. It doesn’t. No form of intellectual expertise does that.

    No one (I am saying) can be an expert on questions of value, on moral priorities, for example, or on how one should live. These are just not the sorts of question to which the methods of science, or of any rigorous empirical, formal or practical discipline – and so, by extension, the notion of expertise – can be applied.”

    – – –

    Once again, you bring up this business about “rigor” and you are just flat-out wrong. To suggest that Kant’s “Groundwork” or Hobbes’ “Leviathan” or Wollheim’s “Art and its Objects” are not rigorous is just unserious. This has been pointed out to you already, but rather than engage with the point, you simply repeat yourself again.

    With regard to the first point, you are, of course, correct in one sense: academic study will not make you a better person or give you better taste. But that is not the sense of expertise that anyone is talking about, in this context. If the suggestion is that values and taste are not subject to being better educated, then again, its not serious, as it is demonstrably false. And there is a reason why as a society we pay educated, credentialed philosophers to teach ethics and aesthetics and political theory at the university, and not any old smart, well-spoken person like yourself. Because, in fact, everyone knows that these *are* areas subject to rigorous study and expertise.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Dan wrote

    Mark, I see you wrote some responses over at your blog. Since the conversation is already underway here, however, I am going to register my thoughts here.

    Those notes on my personal WordPress site were not intended as responses to comments here but as a stand-alone post (linked to the essay above). Given what has happened now, I very much regret posting it as it seems to have derailed the discussion of my essay.

    However, I will try to respond to what you say shortly. Certainly I can say that I did not have you or ej or others at this site in mind when I made those remarks.

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  13. Dan

    Mark wrote: “I emphasized what I see as an unbridgeable gulf between science and human values. This idea is often ignored or strenuously resisted by those seeking to impose their values on others or merely looking for some confirmation or objective validation of strongly felt moral, social or political convictions.” I would suggest that you not try and psychoanalyze your opponents and critics. And as I am one of the people voicing criticisms of your piece, here, let me say that neither of your characterizations are true of me. Nor, I suspect, are they true of E.J. or other critics here. The main negative effect of this sort of uncharitable caricature is on the person making it, as it prevents him/her from engaging with the strongest possible arguments against his/her view. And, as Mill so wisely observed, “he who only knows his side of the case doesn’t even know that.”

    The fact is, I do see an unbridgeable gulf between science and human values. And many people for whatever reason (my psychologizing here is rhetorical and admittedly not well put) ignore or resist this fact. My main target here are scientists and others who use the authority of science to push what are fundamentally values-based ideas. People like Sam Harris.

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  14. My main target here are scientists and others who use the authority of science to push what are fundamentally values-based ideas. People like Sam Harris.

    I see myself as from the science side of the house. I do not see Sam Harris as representing my viewpoint at all.

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  15. Dan

    Mark wrote: “In a not dissimilar way, philosophers and other academics often speak as if their intellectual expertise gives them some special insights into substantive moral or values-based social or political questions. It doesn’t. No form of intellectual expertise does that. These are just not the sorts of question to which the methods of science, or of any rigorous empirical, formal or practical discipline – and so, by extension, the notion of expertise – can be applied.” Once again, you bring up this business about “rigor” and you are just flat-out wrong. To suggest that Kant’s “Groundwork” or Hobbes’ “Leviathan” or Wollheim’s “Art and its Objects” are not rigorous is just unserious.”

    I said: “No one … can be an expert on questions of value, on moral priorities, for example, or on how one should live.”

    I stand by this, though I recognize some semantic complications and confusions. The first part is not well-phrased (“questions of value” is vague but I tried to clarify by talking about moral priorities and how to live). I also note that you copied this before I corrected “special insights” to “special insight”, a change I made before I saw your comment. Certain kinds of study do give you special insights but they do not give privileged access, as it were, to moral realities.

    I believe in connoisseurship, so to that extent one *can* be an expert on certain value-related issues. If one has a background in intellectual history or philosophy one can also have expertise in political, social and moral ideas for example. But not to the extent of ranking moral or social priorities or saying “how one should live” (as I put it).

    On those particular books… The only book by Wollheim I have read was his monograph on Bradley. I was impressed with that and so am well-disposed towards him as a thinker and writer. Hobbes’ Leviathan is a wonderful book, extremely rich in ideas. Is it “rigorous”? In some senses of the word, Yes, in other senses, No. The point is, I am not in any way denying its worth. Kant is more problematic for me. I share Russell’s view on Kant. That style of philosophizing does not appeal to me at all. It just doesn’t get off the ground for me. I do not share some of his key assumptions.

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  16. Neil

    You wrote: “I see myself as from the science side of the house. I do not see Sam Harris as representing my viewpoint at all.”

    I was talking about people (scientists and non-scientists) who use the authority of science to push values-based ideas and did not mean to suggest that most scientists do this.

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  17. I must be a unity of knowledge kind of guy. If the nonhuman world is intelligible, then surely the thoughts of a finite creature such as myself must also be intelligible, especially taking up your comment re algorithmic complexity, which I will recast in terms of the systematic bits of my world view and the random parts. It is the former that hopefully I can understand, and latter I can get around to some extent. The self-proclaimed scientistic Mario Bunge writes in volume 8 of his Treatise on Basic Philosophy

    Now a word of apology for attempting to build a system of basic philosophy. As we are supposed to live in the age of analysis, it may well be wondered whether there is any room left, except in the cemeteries of ideas, for philosophical syntheses. The author’s opinion is that analysis, though necessary, is insufficient – except of course for destruction. The ultimate goal of theoretical research, be it in philosophy, science, or mathematics, is the construction of systems, i.e. theories. Moreover these theories should be articulated into systems rather than being disjoint, let alone mutually at odds. Once we have got a system we may proceed to taking it apart. First the tree, then the sawdust. And having attained the sawdust stage we should move on to the next, namely the building of further systems. And this for three reasons: because the world itself is systemic, because
    no idea can become fully clear unless it is embedded in some system or other, and because sawdust philosophy is rather boring.

    As to Russell, may I recommend
    http://users.tpg.com.au/davidd02/Bertiethoughts.html

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  18. David

    I don’t think I share your point of view, but thank you for engaging with the essay.

    If the nonhuman world is intelligible, then surely the thoughts of a finite creature such as myself must also be intelligible, especially taking up your comment re algorithmic complexity, which I will recast in terms of the systematic bits of my world view and the random parts. It is the former that hopefully I can understand, and latter I can get around to some extent.

    The trouble is you can’t separate them like that. The systematic parts can be expressed, yes. But these constitute a minuscule proportion of our cognitive activity. Most of our cognitive activity is unconscious and so unsystematic, and it drives and interacts with our conscious thinking in various ways, especially with respect to values-related areas.

    You quote Mario Bunge, some of whose work I have read and liked. But I am not familiar enough with his work to have a good grasp of his general outlook. Certainly I am very skeptical of the idea that an individual can sit down and create a philosophical system which has abiding and universal value. Even Bunge seems to agree with this. The tree becomes sawdust, and we start again. At the risk of sounding like Bertie the cat (as “purr” your link), this process seems to involve a lot of unnecessary work.

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  19. “…Most of our cognitive activity is unconscious and so unsystematic…”: Not so – big chunks of psychology and psychiatry are all about this. There once was (and still is, I guess) a debate about tools like the Rorschach, or more recently the implicit association tests versus the conscious self-assessment of oneself tapped by questionnaires, interviews etc. They are usually convergent.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. davidlduffy

    “… Most of our cognitive activity is unconscious and so unsystematic…”: Not so…

    I would certainly need to unpack what I mean here by “unsystematic” but you can’t just glibly dismiss the claim and suggest that the fact that studies showing some convergence between the results of implicit association tests and conscious self-assessments somehow invalidates the huge amount of experimental and other work which demonstrates the ways in which our conscious thinking is affected by (and often driven by) unconscious processing.

    My own introduction to many of these issues occurred in the context of bitter debates between those who wanted to analyse language in terms of transformation rules and so on and those who favored a connectionist or neural network approach.

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  21. On first read the part of the essay that jumped out at me was…

    “Strangely enough, practicing scientists and scholars – because of the extreme degree of specialization which is required today – are no more likely to have a satisfactory general understanding than the interested observer, and the amateur will often have more time and energy than the specialist to devote to wide reading and to considering the implications of what is known.”

    I would put this more strongly by saying that the “extreme degree of specialization which is required today” attracts the kind of person with a natural talent for burrowing deeply in to very narrow topic areas, the kind of person who is by their nature least likely to be able to step back and take the broadest view.

    For years now I’ve been attempting to engage scientists in conversation regarding our “more is better” relationship with knowledge, which I propose to be simplistic, outdated and increasingly dangerous. “More is better” was an entirely rational paradigm in the long era of knowledge scarcity, but is made obsolete in a modern era characterized by an accelerating knowledge explosion. It doesn’t take a PhD to realize that giving human beings more and more power at an ever accelerating rate is not likely to end well. As evidence, we currently have thousands of hair trigger nuclear weapons aimed down our own throat, a topic which we rarely find interesting enough to discuss, a situation which can only be described as a form of madness.

    It is very frustrating to attempt such conversations because on the one hand scientists are clearly very intelligent, indeed brilliant at developing new knowledge, but seem to have little aptitude or even much interest in where the “more is better” foundation of science is taking all of us. That is, they seem to be really good at the details, and really not so good at the big picture.

    In recent months I’ve been shifting the focus of my “more is better” inquiry to the field of philosophy, and am sorry to report that so far I’m not having any better luck in that realm. Somebody prove me wrong please. Thank you.

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    • You won’t get an argument from me. I’ve been arguing against the “more is better” idea in philosophy for years. There is no question that *far* too much is being published, almost entirely as a result of professional pressures re: tenure and promotion.

      Liked by 1 person

  22. Thanks for the reply Daniel. I don’t want to hijack the thread, or distract from the author’s other interesting points, so for now I’ll just say that I’m in a years long search for intelligent conversations on our “more is better” relationship with knowledge and would welcome and appreciate links to any content which is focused on the topic I briefly outlined above.

    By the way, I learned about you and your site on Daily Nous, and replied to your opinion of the APA at the bottom of the article about their recent elections.

    Happy to be here, looks good so far.

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  23. Ha, ha! On that page you wrote…

    “If Moore, Austin, and Ryle were dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants like Hobbes, Locke, and Mill, then our current philosophical royalty are fleas, living in the beards of the dwarfs.”

    I’ve been blowharding this general sentiment all over the APA blog, but not from as an informed position, and never this artfully. Fleas living in the beards of dwarfs, too funny! I’m so envious that my keyboard didn’t produce that sequence of words.

    And then you write…

    ” And perhaps most importantly, venture into or create public forums, in which you bring philosophy’s enriching and enduring questions and its tools for answering them to your friends and neighbors and fellow citizens.”

    Yes, that’s exactly it. The reason so many philosophers are out of work is that the public generally doesn’t see the value in their work, and that’s largely because generally speaking philosophers seem not to be focused on serving the public but rather in serving themselves. When anyone in any field doesn’t focus on serving those who are funding one’s services the outcome is predictable, and typically unwelcome. You’d think experts in logic might be able to see this for themselves.

    The great shame of this is that our society desperately needs a professional cadre of highly educated people expert in the use of reason to develop, analyze and test menus of solutions to our most pressing challenges. I tried to share an example above. Scientists are never going to get around to thinking deeply about where their enterprise is taking us. Somebody needs to do that job and it could be, should be, philosophers.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. I would certainly need to unpack what I mean here by “unsystematic” …

    When I saw your earlier comment, I considered challenging it. However, I don’t know what you meant by “systematic” so I let it go.

    Based on my own theorizing about cognition, I believe it to be highly systematic. However, distinct cognitive systems will systematize in distinct ways, which might be why you doubt that it is systematic.

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  25. Hi Mark.
    “…the huge amount of experimental and other work which demonstrates the ways in which our conscious thinking is affected by (and often driven by) unconscious processing”.

    I can assure you I’m not being glib here – I am alluding to an argument, not explicating it. I’ll just assert that what is unconscious for one person can be conscious for another person, and can vary from occasion to occasion, and by reading the literature you mention and by reflection and training (“consciousness raising”) one can understand and modulate these unconscious processes. For instance, we are (most of us) aware of what advertisements are trying to tap (by their rational design), and believe we are partially or completely immunized against them.

    “My own introduction to many of these issues occurred in the context of bitter debates between those who wanted to analyse language in terms of transformation rules and so on and those who favored a connectionist or neural network approach.” Well of course, these are completely equivalent 😉 Just reading at the moment about “meaning eliminativism”.

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  26. I hadn’t come across the term “meaning eliminativism” before so I googled it

    A post-intentional theory of meaning focuses on the continuity of semantic practices and nature, and views any theoretical perspective entailing the discontinuity of those practices and nature as spurious artifacts of the application of heuristic modes of cognition to theoretical issues. A post-intentional theory of meaning, in other worlds, views culture as a natural phenomenon, and not some arcane artifact of something empirically inexplicable.

    Well the author seems to have successfully eliminated any meaning from that paragraph.

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  27. On the other hand I can see it described elsewhere as “the view that ‘there is no such thing as ‘the meaning of a word’ in isolation from particular contexts’ ” which I would have thought was pretty close to the common sense view of language. I can’t imagine there being such a thing as the “meaning of a word” that doesn’t depend on context.

    But that hardly ‘eliminates’ meaning, only that the meaning is something other than the words.

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  28. Neil

    Based on my own theorizing about cognition, I believe it to be highly systematic. However, distinct cognitive systems will systematize in distinct ways, which might be why you doubt that it is systematic.

    I had in mind uses of the term which relate, for example, to system-building in philosophy or its close cousin, systematic theology. As you suggest, the systems involved in much of our cognitive processing are quite alien to such linear (language-based, ordinary-logic-based) modes of thinking.

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  29. davidlduffy

    …I am alluding to an argument, not explicating it.

    Yes, and making out that the argument has been or is being resolved in favor of the position you support. I dispute this.

    I’ll just assert that what is unconscious for one person can be conscious for another person, and can vary from occasion to occasion, and by reading the literature you mention and by reflection and training (“consciousness raising”) one can understand and modulate these unconscious processes.

    You are talking here about a very narrow range of phenomena, and (as Dan has suggested) much of the research appears to be politically motivated. In my experience, whenever politics obtrudes into science, the quality of the work inevitably suffers.

    Just reading at the moment about “meaning eliminativism”.

    As Robin suggests, a lot of this stuff degenerates into metaphysical hair-splitting, but actually I think there are deep and important questions here. In fact, I agree with the advocates of semantic eliminativism that it doesn’t make sense to see a meaning as a thing which is somehow “attached” to a word and “conveyed” when the word is used. Specifically, I see merit in the associated concepts of meaning externalism and semantic deference.

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  30. Hi Mark.
    “much of the research appears to be politically motivated”??? If you are referring specifically to implicit association type tests, then these are a useful research tool. For example, the death/suicide IAT correlates ~0.5 with self-report based measures such as the Beck Scale for Suicide Ideation, and improves prediction of suicide attempt in the next six months over and above that from standard clinical predictors. The test-retest correlations for IATs are lower than for other psychometric tests (0.35-0.5 over 12 months), so yes they are either measuring dynamic personality characteristics, or are noisy. This is a relevant fact for an individual trying to interpret their score measured on one occasion.

    Anyway, that is *very* peripheral to your thesis. I was trying to make a general point that unconscious cognition is of great interest to psychology, and it is cognition (“all conscious and unconscious processes by which knowledge is accumulated, such as perceiving, recognizing, conceiving, and reasoning”, per the Encyclopedia Britannica). In the case of ethics, my exposure was by cases, where one retrospectively examines what principles seem to underlie the immediate judgements we so often make, and whether particular ethical systems seem concordant with these. Usually we can find elements in formalized systems that seem to closely fit with our judgements (yes, this might well be backward causation). It seems to most of us that we are ratiocinating when we deal with such matters, rather than randomly emoting. We feel we are dealing with quantities – “the benefits of X are outweighed by this harm – if the harm was reduced by 50%, X would be acceptable”. I mention this in that one feature of your essay was how very abstract it was: “values”, “perspectives”, “positions”. If we can look at any one domain, then I might well agree with your assessment!

    Liked by 2 people

  31. Robin,

    “I can’t imagine there being such a thing as the “meaning of a word” that doesn’t depend on context. But that hardly ‘eliminates’ meaning, only that the meaning is something other than the words.”

    It ‘eliminates meaning’ at the word level to a higher degree than other theories do?

    “In Langacker’s version of MM [the mandatory modulation view], for example, lexical concepts consist of abstract schemes in need of elaboration coupled with a large store of encyclopedic representations that need to be narrowed down on the basis of evaluations of relevance, and the interpretation of lexical entries consists in access to elaborated schemes coupled with provisional subsets of encyclopedic representations taken from such store (Langacker 1987). While in MM lexical entries are associated with semantic potentials (or with schemes characterizable as functions from acts of modulation to interpreted values) and the indispensability of modulation is considered due to the fact that the semantic information stored under lexical entries does not come in the adequate format to be inserted in the interpretation of a sentence, ME [meaning eliminativism] proposes that non-functional words, qua types listed in a lexicon, do not “have a meaning” in any commonsensical sense, not even a semantic potential grounded in an abstract array of possible senses. The construction of “what is said” is entirely a matter of context: there is no context-independent semantic contribution from lexical items, compositionality has a marginal, if not insignificant role in the determination of sentential truth conditions, and reference to conventional lexical meanings plays no explanatory role in representing linguistic communication.”

    https://philpapers.org/rec/GASALA (the pdf is available on google scholar)

    Liked by 1 person

  32. I ask my mother-in-law why, when she is making a sauce, she scoops out the seeds or the tomatoes. She says it is because they give the sauce a bitter taste.

    But we don’t use any verbal language for this as she spoke little English and I even less Maltese.

    So we communicate this via a combination of mime and facial expression. So the meaning is there, even without the words.

    I have this word ‘bitter’, but I do not suppose that whatever combination of atoms represents this in my brain has an intrinsic meaning of ‘bitter’, nor do I suppose this of any part of my brain. When my mother in law mimes putting a spoon to her mouth she make a face which has a cultural association with experiencing a bitter taste and immediately it evokes in me the idea of a bitter taste which is represented in my mind by the memory of experiencing that taste.

    I would hazard a guess that when I hear the word ‘bitter’ in the context of food, some set of connections will come into play and evoke that same idea – the same memory of an experience. I don’t imagine there is something as systematic as a store of words or schemes or array of senses. But there is obviously some set of connections that will, on the sound of the word ‘bitter’ (or, if written, the sight), in the context of food that will present that memory of the experience of a bitter taste, just as the facial expression did in the same context.

    It has, so to speak, ‘semantic potential’ in that the sound or sight of the word ‘bitter’ in certain contexts will activate connections to a stored memory of the experience of the taste of something bitter.

    It is difficult for me to see how we could be any more precise than that on current knowledge of brain function.

    It seems to me that many of these descriptions suffer from unconscious teleology. They are written as though we were talking about a system which was designed for purpose.

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  33. David

    I was trying to make a general point that unconscious cognition is of great interest to psychology, and it is cognition (“all conscious and unconscious processes by which knowledge is accumulated, such as perceiving, recognizing, conceiving, and reasoning”, per the Encyclopedia Britannica).

    I know it is cognition! From the OP: “… given the fact that conscious reasoning constitutes only a minuscule portion of cognitive activity, there is no reason to expect – and every reason not to expect – that a person’s outlook on the world, with all its implicit value assessments, etc., would have anything like the degree of underlying logical coherence which would be necessary for its satisfactory articulation in linguistic terms.”

    In the case of ethics, my exposure was by cases, where one retrospectively examines what principles seem to underlie the immediate judgements we so often make, and whether particular ethical systems seem concordant with these. Usually we can find elements in formalized systems that seem to closely fit with our judgements (yes, this might well be backward causation). It seems to most of us that we are ratiocinating when we deal with such matters, rather than randomly emoting.

    “Randomly emoting” is your phrase, not mine. I never suggested that unconscious cognitive processes were random.

    We feel we are dealing with quantities – “the benefits of X are outweighed by this harm – if the harm was reduced by 50%, X would be acceptable”. I mention this in that one feature of your essay was how very abstract it was: “values”, “perspectives”, “positions”. If we can look at any one domain, then I might well agree with your assessment!

    We may have been talking past each other to some extent. But I have the sense that you are wanting to bring everything – including the values side of things – into a kind of rationalistic and manipulatable space (as 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers aspired to do).

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  34. Robin

    I would hazard a guess that when I hear the word ‘bitter’ in the context of food, some set of connections will come into play and evoke that same idea – the same memory of an experience. I don’t imagine there is something as systematic as a store of words or schemes or array of senses.

    Early attempts were made to produce a generative semantics, but (predictably) semantics proved much less amenable to formal modelling than syntax and phonology. I just want to make the point that, as I see it, there is obviously something very systematic going on in terms of syntax and phonology; and that this side of things *can* be effectively modelled. Any such model needs (amongst other things) a basic set of phonemes – and a lexicon.

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  35. If one hears a neighbour say “I am here to raise your barn” then you need to check the context – don’t already have a barn/ friendly neighbour against already have a barn/unfriendly neighbour, before you check the lexicon.

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  36. Robin

    If one hears a neighbour say “I am here to raise your barn” then you need to check the context – don’t already have a barn/ friendly neighbour against already have a barn/unfriendly neighbour, before you check the lexicon.

    Before you check the lexicon? The statement would just be noise or gibberish if its elements were not recognized *as specific words* (i.e. as items from a lexicon).

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  37. Mark

    Before you check the lexicon? The statement would just be noise or gibberish if its elements were not recognized *as specific words* (i.e. as items from a lexicon).

    I am not sure why that matters, we are talking about the processes that occur before this all reaches our consciousness.

    Presumably you mean that all the possible matches are retrieved from the lexicon and then the context is checked to narrow it down to one.

    I am doubting the process is as organised as that.

    My guess is that context and word sound are both involved in the retrieval prices.

    If I have a barn and an unfriendly neighbour I am primed for something hostile. I hear “barn” and retrieve sense impressions of the barn I already have. I am defensive of my property and so the ‘raze’ concept is returned.

    On the other hand if I don’t have a barn yet and my neighbour is friendly then I am primed for helpful responses and the “barn” sound will link to ideas on the barn I am planning and so the concept of “raise” is retrieved.

    This seems to me closer to my understanding of how a brain works.

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  38. Robin

    I am not sure why that matters, we are talking about the processes that occur before this all reaches our consciousness.

    I realize that, but I am not worrying about which bits of processing are conscious and which are not. What concerned me was that you seemed to be claiming there was no lexicon. You said: “I don’t imagine there is something as systematic as a store of words or schemes or array of senses.” And I said that there must be at least a lexicon (or store of words) but maybe it doesn’t have an *intrinsic* semantic component.

    Someone speaks. It is immediately (not consciously) identified *as speech* (in a particular language).

    Presumably you mean that all the possible matches are retrieved from the lexicon and then the context is checked to narrow it down to one.

    No I don’t mean this, as I have explained. Hearing speech automatically triggers the language centers of the brain. These processes encompass the semantic side of things in ways that remain obscure.

    My guess is that context and word sound are both involved in the retrieval process… If I have a barn and an unfriendly neighbour I am primed for something hostile. I hear “barn” and retrieve sense impressions of the barn I already have. I am defensive of my property and so the ‘raze’ concept is returned… On the other hand if I don’t have a barn yet and my neighbour is friendly then I am primed for helpful responses and the “barn” sound will link to ideas on the barn I am planning and so the concept of “raise” is retrieved.

    As far as it goes, this seems not unreasonable.

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