Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Physics and Ethics

This post is a bit long (fourteen hundred words) because I’m asking a question that strikes even me as odd—and if I seem to be defending the popular answer, that is only to emphasise that there is a genuine question here—i.e. who are the experts on ethics? For an example of why that may not seem to be much of a question, consider Anthony Grayling’s commonplaces about Faith (as opposed to science) in his The Meaning of Things (page 122):
......“Contemporary science hypothesises an evolutionary tale of
......physical forces. I say ‘hypothesises’, note; hypothesises on
......the basis of good evidence, severely tested, with many
......aspects of the accompanying theory successfully applied to
......daily life – as exemplified by the light you read by, the
......computer you work on, the airplane you fly in. The great
......advantage of science’s careful and thorough hypotheses,
......always ready to yield if better evidence comes along, is that it
......makes use of no materials or speculations beyond what the
......world itself offers. Religions, in sharp contrast, offer us eternal
......certitudes on the basis only of ancient superstition.”
But to begin with, surely our sciences do not only utilise “what the world itself offers” us—e.g. for most people (including most scientists) the standard model of those physical forces is taken on trust from particle physicists—not, that is, unless such things as the reputations of such people are included within “the world,” as perhaps they ought to be since we are, each of us, part of, rather than apart from, the world—although incidentally, if they are included then religious beliefs, about the non-physical aspects of the world, might not be so very different in kind from our scientific beliefs, about its physical aspects (cf. Polkinghorne’s defence of the Trinity as the best explanation of our written records; with which, incidentally, I disagree). Anyway, particle physicists base their theories upon data taken (almost exclusively) from places that hardly anyone else could gain admittance to—or could understand the workings of (in order to check what was going on) if they did. I’m not suggesting that such people are not to be trusted, just observing that trusting their authoritative testimony is what we do.
......In fact, although the daily life and work of most scientists (and many others) may well provide plenty of support for our beliefs about chemistry and electromagnetism (and thence in quantum mechanics), this “evolutionary tale of physical forces” is hardly so straightforward. For starters, alternative hypotheses are not always eliminated on the basis of the evidence, but surprisingly often because they are just uninteresting, for various reasons—for a glimpse of the sheer range of unconsidered possibilities, consider the following. Particle (or high-energy) physics research has surely (for the last half-century, at least) been of great interest to the military wings of the great world powers, who of course believe that it is of the utmost importance that certain classes of potential discoveries run little risk of falling into the hands of potential enemies—so my question is, what evidence does the world itself offer that the standard model of particle physics is not a fabrication designed purely for public (and thence potential enemy) consumption?
......Now, that particular hypothesis is not to be taken seriously, of course (it is not in capital letters, on a more popular blog), but clearly there are many possibilities, of various kinds, some quite reasonable (e.g. some non-string-theoretic approaches to particle physics may have been neglected for socio-economic reasons), and my point is not that particle physicists are not (or should not be) the experts about physical forces—far from it—but rather that few sorts of knowledge do not require a considerable degree of faith. There may be some, e.g. elementary mathematics, and our everyday knowledge of the world, and of our own minds, but those are hardly examples of scientific knowledge. Now, I personally favour a hitherto unconsidered (and hence unfalsified) hypothesis about physical continua (see my web pages) over the standard set-theoretic hypothesis—and for such reasons I’m undecided about physics beyond elementary quantum mechanics—but even I recognise that it is important what the experts on mathematics and physics favour (for what are presumably good, if not overwhelming reasons). But then similarly, I’m thinking, surely it is important what the experts on ethics think—whether we like what they say, or not—about what the moral facts are (e.g. that would be important in law and politics). So the question is, who are those experts?
......Since the popular answer would be something like, our religious leaders, consider the last line of Grayling above. As a one-liner about Galileo’s troubles it is not too bad, but surely religions are actually what dragged humanity away from the primitive (not to say primate) morality that is just what a purely evolutionary tale would leave us with, but to which few of us (and certainly not most physicists) would wish to return. Over the intervening centuries, the ethical views of those religions have been widely applied, and hence severely tested, both by daily life (as social structures have risen and fallen) and by internal disputes (as obscure as those within modern physics)—in short, why should the experts about ethics not be found (for the most part) within the major religions, just as the experts about physics are (for the most part) in the better-funded departments? I hasten to add that I’m not a member of any religion—in fact, I disagree with many standard religious opinions, e.g. about abortion (where, as a substantial dualist, I don’t see why our rights should not begin with our first breath), and so a good argument that I’m wrong about this answer would not be inconvenient—but (unfortunately) such disagreements are not the issue.
......Similarly, Stephen Hawking is clearly an expert on physical matters irrespective of whatever I think about strings (unfortunately). My worry is that many Naturalists are simply supposing that, just because they believe (on the basis of relatively little evidence at present) that moral facts would, if they exist at all, be best explained by an evolutionary tale, therefore religious thinkers are not experts on ethics. Naturally we think that we know what is right, independently of those religious systems that we are not part of, and of course we do not need those systems in order to function socially (at least not in the short term)—but then, we also know about the physical world independently of the hypotheses of the physicists; and most of us are physically competent, athletes and craftsmen more so than most physicists, who are nonetheless the experts on physics (for good reasons). And since I mean ethics and not meta-ethics (much as I meant above, physics and not metaphysics), so the experts are unlikely to include many philosophers—what philosophy has shown (e.g. via the paradoxes of the trolley and of distance) is that the activity of our consciences no more eliminates our need for experts on ethics than our physical intuitions eliminate our need for physicists.
......But I’m no expert, and maybe I’ve made the question clear enough, so I’ll return to reading Grayling, who is even better than Russell... But on page 100: “The religious attitude is marked by a robust refusal to take things at face value if inconvenient.” That proposition would be even truer were ‘religious’ replaced by ‘naturalistic’ (think of your own feelings and choices, and the physicists’ 10-dimensional strings, etc.)... And on page 101: “Why can we not be prompted to the ethical life by our own charitable feelings? The existence of a god adds nothing to our moral situation,” which inspires me to suggest sarcastically that surely we know about the physical world by bumping around inside it, that surely the existence of strings adds nothing to our physical situation! That is, I could say much the same for mathematics and the existence of sets, or physics and the existence of strings—but even I recognise that if strings exist then they would explain not only how we bump into things—how we actually bump into them, irrespective of what we think we are doing—but also the finer (and more paradoxical) details of the world around us. (And of course, even if they don’t exist, they may—or may not—be a good way of modelling reality.)... Etc.


John said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne. Please check out these references which give an Illuminated Understanding of the relation between scientism (as ideology and world-view), exoteric religion and Real God

1. www.dabase.org/spacetim.htm
2. www.dabase.org/christmc2.htm
3. www.dabase.org/ilchurst.htm
4. www.dabase.org/dht7.htm
5. www.aboutadidam.org

Enigman said...

Thanks for mentioning this one of the hundreds of religions. Is someone who is thought of as God by, not just himself but many hundreds of others too, an expert on ethics? (By analogy with physics, it depends upon how other Hindus view his ideas.)

The Barefoot Bum said...

Interesting post. I think you're making too much of the sociological status of science and not enough of the explicit methodological systems of the two groups.

I think you're correct in that the opinions of physicists and the opinions of priests and theologians both exist in the real world. However, the trust that one gives the content of those opinions is not predicated merely on the opinions being real; and the trust that one offers physicists is at predicated on the same system that the physicists use to construct theories: falsification against publicly observable evidence.

Another reason that we trust physicists even when they are expounding complex, counter-intuitive theories is that the details of these theories are not really that important to our daily lives. I really don't care if black holes do or do not radiate; nothing about my life would change if Hawking were found incorrect on this point.

Since I do care about physics, at least at the lay level, I don't presume that physicists are correct, I investigate their theories with great interest.

The problem with priests and theologians is that I can't validate their methodology, except insofar as they happen to have experience as lay psychologists. When they say, "God wants thus-and-such", I have absolutely no way of knowing if they're right or wrong, try as I might to educate myself.

I can read the Bible, of course, and a lot of theology, but how do I know the Bible is the word of God? How do I know whether or not some theologians statement about the nature of God is factually correct? I can't look at their methodology: It's explicitly opaque.

I think you're essay reduces (on an admittedly uncharitable reading, for which I hope you'll forgive me) that if we ignore what differentiates science from religion, we can't tell the difference between the two.

Pamela J. Stubbart said...

Wow, so there are at least a dozen issues in your post that are worth discussing. However, since the question you posed to me was basically "who are the experts on ethics?" I will try to answer that in the context of your article.

The comparison of religious leaders to scientists is interesting but flawed. I believe both that A) science is concerned only with "what the world itself offers us" and B) that religion is, in general, largely unconcerned with the same. It seems that you think that because science is sometimes in the business of working with theoretical entities that that means it isn't concerned with what the world offers. I disagree. We can't observe gravity, for instance, but the world offers it to us by means of falling rain, leaves, pencils, etc each and every day. Philosophy of science is hardly my strength, but I take natural laws, theories postulating unobservable entities and the like to be heuristics crafted just for the purpose of describing/predicting/explaining what the world has offered. I agree that science is an evolutionary tale, but only when considered in broad social context; that is, the scientific theories that "survived" made it not because they were the best theories as judged by scientific criteria but by a larger set of criteria including things such as social acceptability, usefulness,fit with historical and political climates, etc.

That all being said, I don't think that religious leaders can be the ethics experts for one main reason: they do NOT do any proper testing of their ethical theories. Nor can they, for their ethics concern the supernatural and not what the world has to offer. The mere fact that religious ethics have existed for many years and have changed over the course of their existence is not sufficient to show that anything has been tested. You claim that it is religion that led humans away from primitive morality. Perhaps that was true at one time. However, in the present day, many of the tenets of divine command theory and the like are more antiquated and regressive than ever. If religious leaders are experts in anything, they are scholars of ancient allegorical texts and superstitious practices - not ethics.

I believe that the experts in ethics are, in fact, the philosopher ethicists. If any community has tested ethical theories in any semblance of a scientific manner, it is surely the ethics academe. The process by which theories are conceived, presented, challenged and culled is every bit as evolutionary as the history of science. Furthermore, academic ethicists, like scientists, do seem concerned with what the world offers: psychological features of humans and their experiences, brute facts about limited resources and markets, the capacity for rationality and reasonableness. These considerations are surely more a part of the world than a supernatural deity whose presence and will are supposedly ascertained via centuries old folklore.

I hope this is a sufficiently relevant contribution to your discussion. Please let me know if you require any clarification.


false dog said...
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Enigman said...
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Enigman said...

One important difference between physics and ethics, Larry, is that the former is (roughly) concerned with what is, and the latter with what ought to be, so it may be that ethical discoveries require evidence of an unscientific sort. So academic methodology might in general be too scientific for anything short of meta-ethics. I can’t think of a good example, but in a previous post I’ve considered the problem of giving a Naturalistic reason why we ought to tell it as it is.

And whilst I trust that some academics are experts on ethics, Pamela, which ones? I doubt that academia itself can tell those that can advise us on what we should do, from those that can't; whereas the major religions provide ready-made (or time-honoured) experts on the ethical systems actually used by billions of people. After all, the question is not, who do we agree with but, who are the experts (e.g. should Bishops sit in the House of Lords); for an analogy from my area, even if Wittgenstein (or Dummett) became more important within philosophy, the experts on mathematics would surely remain the (set-theoretical) mathematicians.

Less importantly I disagree with Pamela that I “think that because science is sometimes in the business of working with theoretical entities that that means it isn't concerned with what the world offers” because, for example, I’d have no problem including gravity alongside my examples of electromagnetism and chemistry. But scientific beliefs no less than religious beliefs arise via peer-reviews, so that assumptions common to the relevant experts tend to be less rigorously justified (as outsiders may be more likely to notice, although I myself come from a scientific background).

It’s not that I’m a relativist, but rather that Naturalists in particular like to refer us to scientific practice when justifying such assumptions (e.g. the standard axioms in mathematics) on the grounds that the scientists are the experts, and if in general the experts are only being distinguished by being those with whom Naturalists agree then that would be a bit circular. And it’s not that I disapprove of philosophical research into ethics, far from it, but rather that I wonder why there is no corresponding deference towards those who appear prima facie to be the experts.

Incidentally, I hope I don't accidentally delete this comment this time!

The Barefoot Bum said...

"[I]t may be that ethical discoveries require evidence of an unscientific sort."

The notion of "evidence of an unscientific sort" seems vague, perhaps even vacuous. Public science admits all facts into evidence: Anything statement that (almost) everyone agrees on is legitimate fodder for the scientific method. "Unscientific" evidence would therefore be statements that were controversial: But how can controversial statements serve as any sort of foundation for rational agreement?

I think you're vastly over-rating the concept of peer review. At best, peer review eliminates only the worst ineptitude; at worst it simply enforces an unscientific orthodoxy.

Because there are some specific ethical principles in place for scientists, ethical principles —enforced mostly by controlling scientific reputation—we can trust the consensus of scientific opinion but only as a matter of convenience (or, with respect to philosophers, inexcusable laziness).

Science is not established by the consensus of scientists: Scientific consensus is established by means of publicly available principles. In principle, anyone can and must come to the same conclusions as the scientific consensus. It's not even all that difficult to come to the same conclusions in practice; while it's very difficult to do creative work in science, it's really not all that difficult to understand the creative work of others.

Enigman said...

Yes, my "evidence of an unscientific sort" was too vague. I meant to include sorts of evidence that scientists would professionally (if not personally) ignore, e.g. evidence arising from situations that one could not reliably reproduce at will. Or evidence not publically available (e.g. one's personal feelings) that seems nonetheless to help to explain scientific evidence (e.g. the testimony of others). And so it might also include statements that most of us would accept, since it might be controversial how they were to be interpretted (e.g. the fact that it is bad to torture children for fun, treated as evidence that moral facts of a certain kind exist.) And so on...

In short, I'm therefore unsure about much of your following comments (so I'll think about them some more, as they interest me). I'm pretty sure that I disagree with your "In principle, anyone can and must come to the same conclusions as the scientific consensus." Are you saying that (in principle) I ought to agree that, for example, the spectrum is well-modelled by the standard real number line (simply because standard set theory is, and has been for some time, the scientific consensus)? Or are you saying that mathematics (and possibly some physics) is unscientific?

The Barefoot Bum said...

I definitely did not give enough argument in the previous comment to be persuasive, especially on the second point. I'll expand further.

Enigman said...

Thanks, and your post on presuppositions and hypotheses clarifies it somewhat.

Enigman said...

It occurs to me that those who (believe that they) know that God is a highly improbable hypothesis, would think that those who deduce moral principles from his (hardly ever her) existence, from what they believe about his properties (alongside various other assumptions and experiences), could hardly be the experts on ethics. So, I think it pertinent that the scientific facts, which tend to be metaphysically neutral (to say nothing of God, rather than that God is nothing), don’t actually make that hypothesis improbable. One can dispute that point (it is certainly not straightforward) but in any case, only a God who would not have created a world such as this one seems to be, could be made improbable by such appearances (e.g. this sort isn’t), and although the major religions do (in my lay opinion) seem to believe in such Gods, the devil is surely in the details.

My favourite analogy is with what space appears to be (3-dimensionally Euclidean, and qualitatively unlike time), what modern physicists seem to believe about space (various analogies here, e.g. rubber sheets) and what they actually believe (e.g. no collapse), because I look around, at what the world itself offers me, and I see little evidence of anything divine, let alone a plan, but also I see much evidence that space is Euclidean—is that evidence that modern physics is false? No—my experiences are (so the experts assure me) compatible with their (not too easily understood) theories, but their (not too accessible, for most people) experiences are incompatible with my naïve view. Well, they’re the experts, I tell myself. I don’t (on those grounds alone) believe them, but I do take their (to my mind) weird ideas seriously, giving them not necessarily more credence, but certainly greater tolerance.

So, in the interests of objectivity I ask myself whether I’m really competent to judge, who are the experts on ethics? I’ve my own opinions on what is right and wrong, of course, but I’m no expert (and my doubts about what such expertise would consist in hardly increase my competence). I’m not asking you (or myself) to take the Bible seriously—it is rather more apposite that billions of other people already regard the major religions as containing the experts on ethics. It was in the context of such thoughts that it occurred to me that you don’t have to be a Catholic to see the world (itself) giving us at least as many reasons to distrust the (modern) Pentagon as it gives us to distrust the (modern) Vatican—and note that what is apposite there is the likelihood of secret access to special (e.g. expensive and/or unique) apparatus by legitimate authorities, and hence the motivations of various non-experts, rather than the trustworthiness, the methodology, of the experts.