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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, January 03, 2014

The “meta” itch

by Massimo Pigliucci

I used to have the “meta” itch, but I learned to live with it and stop scratching it. It only irritates anyway, without doing much good work. Let me explain. If you are a regular (or even occasional) reader of Rationally Speaking you know that we often publish essays that have to do with ethics and moral philosophy. That's because ethics is one of those things that always lurks in the background (and sometimes the foreground) of our lives, whether we reflect on it or not. And I of course think it is better to reflect on it, at least from time to time.

But invariably, regardless of what the specific impetus is for a given post, one or more of our readers brings up the “meta” question, i.e. the question of what could possibly ground our ethical judgments to begin with. Of course, meta-ethics is a legitimate branch of philosophy, and philosophers in general are properly concerned — at least from time to time — with meta-issues. But meta-issues are notoriously difficult, especially when they are approached from a so-called foundationalist perspective.

A foundationalist in ethics, for instance may reasonably ask what grounds (notice the metaphor!) our ethical judgment in general (as opposed to asking what reasoning has brought one to a particular ethical judgment about whatever matter happens to be under discussion). There are, of course, a number of different approaches on offer: from divine law (yeah, I know) to conventionalism, various forms of moral realism and anti-realism, and so forth. I happen to be both a naturalist and a virtue ethicist, which meta-ethically speaking means that I think the ability to experience moral sentiments evolved in our social primate ancestors and has then developed culturally into a number of principled and practical ways to conduct one’s own life, as well as to deal with other people in a way that leaves as much room as possible for individual flourishing while also improving social justice. This way of looking at meta-ethics, of course, will not satisfy everyone, and perhaps for good reason. Nevertheless, pretty soon one needs to move away from the “meta” analysis and get down to everyday ethical judgments. Why? Because life demands it, darn it!

Now, what strikes me as bizarre is how much resistance this obvious move from “meta” to ordinary ethics encounters, while the same people who so staunchly resist it appear to be little (or not at all) bothered by very similar “meta” questions one could reasonably ask about all sorts of other areas.

Take science, for instance. Ever since Hume formulated his famous problem of induction — and despite much philosophical literature concerning it — we have known that we do not have a logical foundation for inductive reasoning. If that doesn’t bother you, it should. Induction, in its varied forms, is the basis of both commonsensical and scientific reasoning. So if we have no logical justification for induction it means we have no logical justification for pretty much any of our empirical knowledge, all scientific knowledge included! Oops.

Now you might be tempted to scoff at the Humeans amongst us and respond that we know induction works because it has worked so far. I sincerely hope you’ll refrain from such quick answer, though, because that would simply show that you haven’t understood the problem: you see, invoking the fact that induction has worked in the past to justify future inductions is itself an inductive move, which means that you are using induction to justify induction, which means that you are engaging in circular reasoning, which is no good at all.

A more defensible response would be the pragmatist one: well, we may not have any logical foundation for using induction in everyday life and in science, but it seems to work, and we really have no alternative but to use it. If you went that route you would be in good company, beginning with Hume himself! But notice what you’ve just done: you have acknowledged the “meta” issue and promptly set it aside, because after all you’ve got a life to live, or a grant proposal to write. Why, then, can’t you do the same with ethics? Why does the meta-ethical hitch bother you so much, while you seem to be able to gingerly ignore the meta-scientific one?

Or consider an even more disturbing case: mathematics. Up until the early part of the 20th century people thought that it would be possible to establish mathematical knowledge on an entirely logically tight foundation. Russell and Whitehead famously made the most valiant attempt in that direction, resulting in their colossal Principia Mathematica, a book that many like to cite, but very few have ever read (including yours truly, though I did at least start it, once!). That entire intellectual project was smashed into pieces by Gödel’s famous incompleteness theorems, and that was the end of that. But it wasn’t the end of mathematics, was it? It’s not like people stopped doing it because they thought “oh my god! We can’t find a complete logical foundation for mathematics! It must all be rubbish!”

Indeed, things get even worse than that, if possible. I just came back from the annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in Baltimore. The last session I attended was comprised of a single paper (accompanied by two detailed commentaries). The paper, by University of New Mexico’s Matthew Carlson, was entitled “What’s basic about basic logical principles?” and of course took its starting point from the known failure to foundationally justify some of the, ahem, basic principles of logic, such as the law of the excluded middle, or modus ponens. So, really, not even logic itself has a (logical?) grounding in something solid. Even that “meta” question seems unanswerable! But do you see logicians fretting too much about it, throwing logic away and going home? Not at all.

Indeed, Carlson’s paper and the ensuing discussion reminded me of what these days (in philosophy) is a very acceptable and very decent way out of foundational conundra: the Quine gambit. W.V.O. Quine was one of the most influential and controversial philosophers of the 20th century, though I think he was off the mark on a thing or two (aren’t we all?). But one of his most famous moves was to introduce the metaphor of a “web of knowledge” to replace the commonly used one of an “edifice of knowledge.” Unlike buildings, webs don’t have foundations, they have (many) threads. And even though some of these threads are more important than others (at the risk of pushing the analog too far, some of those threads attach the whole web to a tree), none of the individual threads is irreplaceable. There is, in a web, no keystone you can take out and make the whole thing fall down. Rather, each and every thread can be replaced by other threads, if need be, without dramatically altering the structure of the web. For Quine, every scientific theory, all of mathematics, and even logic itself are threads in the human web of knowledge. They all contribute to the structural integrity of the web, they reinforce each other, and if necessary they can all be replaced (though only a few at a time, just like in a spider web). Isn’t that a powerful picture? Don’t you feel the foundational hitch gradually lose its lure?

So here is my advice, people. If you are not bothered (too much) by the lack of foundational grounding of commonsense, science, mathematics and logic, give the ethics’ “meta” itch a rest too, and focus instead on whatever pressing moral question is at hand. It’s going to be so much more useful, really. (But if you are a true glutton for punishment, try meta-metaphysics instead!)

105 comments:

  1. Hi Massimo,

    A very interesting post, with some great points.

    Unfortunately, I think there is a more serious foundational problem for ethics than the other disciplines you have mentioned.

    Firstly, I can't resist going on a bit of a tangent to attempt to justify induction.

    If we see a thousand swans, and all of them are black, we are not justified in assuming that all swans are white, but we are justified on a probabilistic basis in assuming that almost all swans are white. In particular, if asked to predict the colour of the next swan we see, I think we have logical grounds for believing it will be white, because all else being equal, the odds that this particular swan will be the first non-white we have seen is very unlikely (probably about 1/1000 at most).

    So, though the induction of the law "all swans are white" is not really justified, we do have reason to believe it is a very good approximation to the truth. We can therefore adopt it as a heuristic, but be prepared to revise if we ever come across a black swan. This is the essence of science.

    I think this probabilistic/heuristic justification is all we need if we are to use induction in practice. Besides, nobody really doubts that induction is a valid form of reasoning. I think it has come hard-wired in our brains by evolution, just as it has in the brains of other animals.

    Having established this basis for induction, I think we can *induce* that our mathematics and logic work just fine even if we cannot rigorously prove that they are consistent.

    Ethics is different. People have the intuition that certain things are right or wrong, but they disagree over which things these are, often leading to violent disputes. There is no way to test this, there is no authority beyond philosophers and theologians. Ethics is therefore a very thorny issue.

    Unlike standard logic or arithmetic, there are a number of different ethical systems resting on different foundations, and sometimes these foundations lead to different conclusions. In discussing ethical questions, we absolutely must establish the meta-ethical basis on which our arguments will be built. The meta-ethical discussion is unavoidable.

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    1. DM: "So, though the induction of the law "all swans are white" is not really justified, we do have reason to believe it is a very good approximation to the truth."

      It seems the language "approximation of the truth" is too strong in this case. We have no way of knowing how available information relates the truth, and the sample size of 1000 swans seems small.

      Some arguments claim that scientists use faith to make the jump from "conclusions based on available data" to "approximation of the truth". While not being particularly convincing, these arguments do highlight problems with the word "truth".

      DM: "The meta-ethical discussion is unavoidable."

      Can we just say stuff like "created equal" and "life, liberty, pursuit of happiness", and get to work? How "meta" do we need to get?

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    2. Disagreeable-

      '
      Unlike standard logic or arithmetic, there are a number of different ethical systems resting on different foundations, and sometimes these foundations lead to different conclusions. In discussing ethical questions, we absolutely must establish the meta-ethical basis on which our arguments will be built. The meta-ethical discussion is unavoidable'.

      Even with ethics I think we can avoid the trap of being wedded to rigid absolute foundations. Why cannot we identify various things we value in different contexts while still acknowledging the importance of context. The 'right' or 'best' thing to do will always be somewhat uncertain and will always depend on a web of relations between competing and supporting things we place various values on. I think we should be upfront with the uncertainties and complexities inherent to ethical decisions rather then pretending we can assign absolute ethical values.

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    3. I'm not sure why you identify ethics as a "thorny" issue simply because "there is no way to test" what is right or wrong. There is no way to test that a man loves his spouse, or that he killed his neighbor; sifting evidence in the court of law can become "thorny," but nobody objects to bald, unprovable assertions of love, nor to bald, unprovable assertions about what a line is. Therefore, I think we have to admit that thorniness comes not from meta-factors, but from the stress one feels at trying to allow all humanity to share in all the Basic Goods, i.e. the stress of deference to Integrated Human Fulfillment. I speak as a novice Grisezian, but am referring to the actual good/apparent good distinction, and to Aristotelian synderesis. I don't think we can reject synderesis any faster than we can reject the unproven concept of a line in geometry.

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    4. Hi Alexey,

      This is a bit late, but...

      >It seems the language "approximation of the truth" is too strong in this case. We have no way of knowing how available information relates the truth, and the sample size of 1000 swans seems small. <

      Yup, the sample size is small. Our confidence in the inducted rule will be correspondingly weak. Add swans until confidence increases to the point when you're willing to (probabilistically) accept the rule.

      >Can we just say stuff like "created equal" and "life, liberty, pursuit of happiness", and get to work? How "meta" do we need to get? <

      We need to get meta when we disagree on the finer points. Is an embryo equal to a pregnant woman? Which is more important, my happiness or my liberty? Do I have a right not to be offended? If not, why not?

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    5. @Seth_blog

      I agree with everything you said. My point is, as you say, that there are no rigid absolute foundations.

      However, if we are trying to reach an agreement on a certain question, it is helpful to establish what foundational assumptions we share and where we disagree. If we share enough assumptions, it may be possible to show one point of view or the other to be superior through argument or evidence.

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    6. Hi NiqDan135,

      >There is no way to test that a man loves his spouse<

      This may be a thorny issue if his spouse doubts his love.

      >or that he killed his neighbor<

      This is a thorny issue to the accused or the family of the victim.

      >nobody objects to bald, unprovable assertions of love<

      Except spouses who feel that those assertions are only words.

      >or to bald, unprovable assertions about what a line is<

      Unless you also assert that this is the only way a line can be defined. Axioms in mathematics are perfectly fine but not necessarily universal. Different geometries have different axioms, there is no one true geometry, just as there is no one true morality. If we are making mathematical statements it needs to be clear, whether implicitly or explicitly, what system of axioms we are working in. The same is true for morality, and that's why the meta-question arises.

      >Therefore, I think we have to admit that thorniness comes not from meta-factors<

      Since I reject your premises I'm not sure that your conclusion follows. However, I don't know what you mean by meta-factors and the rest of what you said is also meaningless to me due to my own ignorance on Grisez, Aristotelian synderesis etc, so I can't comment on whether I agree with it or not.

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  2. Meta Is
    The complete logical foundation for mathematics has been found, the solution is equal and the lion is One. Ethically there is no greater or meta ground to stand on than equality. Philosophically, equal is the single truth that unites us all. Equal is the Way, the light, the absolute, the promised land, freedom at last.
    Meta is =

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  3. This is good, Massimo. It seems to me that any justification must either be infinitely long or finite. If finite, it must have a beginning posit, which itself is not justified.

    If that is correct, and if we forego the assumption that our justifications are infinite in length, then the issue is to construct a system of justification with as few posits as possible. So far as I can see, we have the logical posit (modus ponens, if you like, or whatever small number of such propositions are essential to ground logic), the inductive posit (perhaps the claim that past regularities justifies the assumption that those regularities will persist into the future, or some such suitably refined claim), the abductive posit, though that is more complex to formulate, and again perhaps some sort of ethical posit. That counts out at four basic posits for all of reasoned thought. Sound good?

    Of course much of this is a promissory note for further work; but this is only a quick response to a blog post.

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  4. Very nice post,

    I agree that the lack of an absolute foundation should not be considered as a problem when it comes to doing science, or logic, or math, or ethics, or in finding meaning. As Graham Priest would put it 'just because there are true contradictions that doesn't mean I can't conclude that I'm not a frog' ( I'm paraphrasing from memory).

    On the other hand I think it is equally important that we do keep the 'lack of a foundation' principle always in mind. It serves as an important protection against the hubris that experts in any given field can fall into thinking they have access to what is the 'real' or' true' foundation.

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  5. I'm no expert in philosophy, but it seems to me that one of the problems with trying to establish some sort of objective or logical grounding of moral values is that moral behavior is contingent on the existence of conscious creatures capable of reflecting on potential consequences of their actions; who live in a cooperative, interdependent social hierarchy; and who have a vested interest in their own survival and well-being.

    So for example, if we each lived alone in the woods and never interacted with one another, we'd have complete moral autonomy, but our species would be short-lived. We only need moral norms because we are obligatorily gregarious, dependent on our social hierarchies to meet all of our physical and emotional needs. It's rational to recognize that if we wish to have our own needs and interests respected, we have to respect others' needs and interest lest we want to forfeit the benefits of our interdependent social hierarchy.

    Similarly, if nobody cared about living or dying or the quality of their lives, then morality wouldn't make any sense either. So it just seems to me that any attempt to ground moral norms in something that transcends human experience is just a waste of time. Moral values are emergent social phenomena contingent upon self-interested conscious creatures living cooperatively and interdependently. I'm not really sure why, then, the meta-ethical discussion is even relevant to us at all.

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    1. It's relevant because of cases where exterior consequences don't matter at all (a millionaire who steals millions from another millionaire), as well as cases where duty doesn't matter at all (Auschwitz). At some point the virtue ethicists asks: Doesn't every decision at least affect what kind of person I habitually will become, and isn't that outcome open-ended, incalculable, and irrelevant to duty?

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  6. The web is a great analogy to knowledge that lacks foundation, and shifting the focus of ethics to usefulness seems like a very good idea.

    Historically, we can observe an ongoing gap between our behavior and our ethical knowledge. For example, slavery persisted for almost a century after Thomas Jefferson wrote "All men are created equal," and it was not stopped by a superior meta-ethical argument. Similar gap can be detected in modern ethical problems. Therefore it is important to highlight that the quest for meta-ethical foundations may not actually contribute to ethical progress of societies.

    This reminds me of a "talking about it" vs "doing about it" problem with TED that Massimo tweeted about recently.


    Also, the word "foundation" suggests a particular set of attributes - the foundation is laid down first, the house cannot stand without it, flawed foundation is catastrophic, etc. These are not necessarily the case. For example, Ludwig Wittgenstein's "On Certainty" articulates a view where the foundation is supported by the house: "248. I have arrived at the rock bottom of my convictions. And one might almost say that these foundation-walls are carried by the whole house."

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  7. Many people who do meta-ethics (and, more specifically, ask the question of what grounds an ethical judgment) aren't doing it for the purpose of laying a foundation for settling first-order ethical problems. They just find the question intrinsically interesting. In fact, a lot of people are of the opinion that the meta- question and first-order ethical questions are independent of one another (I think they are in some respects, but not in others). J. L. Mackie, for example, expressed such a view in his famous "Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong".

    So it's not bizarre for people to be intrigued by the meta question in ethics, but not in mathematics or science. People are just interested in different things. By analogy, some people are interested in the philosophy of physics, but not the philosophy of biology. There's nothing bizarre about that.

    Similarly, it doesn't always make sense to say "give the ethics’ 'meta' itch a rest too, and focus instead on whatever pressing moral question is at hand.' That would be like telling philosophers of math to stop bothering with the 'meta' questions and just focus on solving math problems.

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  8. Massimo,

    Excellent post. In general, I despise the meta-move. In my experience, when someone is confronted with a concrete problem and makes the meta-move, it usually means he has little or nothing to say about the solution to the problem.

    It's funny to think about Gödel in this respect. He made one of the most successful meta-moves ever. But how did he do it? It's a long time since I studied Gödel, but if I remember correctly, the heart of his argument was a mathematical statement that made a statement about itself – about mathematics. In a certain sense, mathematics became meta-mathematics, or perhaps more correctly: at a crucial point Gödel could transform meta-mathematics into mathematics.

    Few philosopher seem to be successful at transforming meta-ethics (the philosophy of ethical judgments) into ethical judgments.

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  9. So if we have no logical justification for induction it means we have no logical justification for pretty much any of our empirical knowledge, all scientific knowledge included! Oops.....A more defensible response would be the pragmatist one: well, we may not have any logical foundation for using induction in everyday life and in science, .
    Yes exactly. Logical justification is overrated :) . There are many many logical fallacies that we commit which are standard strategies for every day life. Should I listen to my doctor? Or is that an argument from authority when i have absolutely no medical skills? Would I go through every single Discovery Institute book with the logical possibility that the next book will have some true stuff or should I go with the ad hominem-ish the Discovery Institute are now proven liars so we can reject their next works?
    I've always felt that the pragmatic engineering approach is more valuable than the logically pure approach - you know you will get some errors , you just build tolerance around them and change them if you are way off the mark. In which case the inductive and empirical approaches work just fine.

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  10. DM,

    > we are justified on a probabilistic basis in assuming that almost all swans are white <

    In a sense, yes, but that has nothing to do with Hume’s meta-problem. For that justification to go through you already have to buy into the assumption that there are sufficiently stable regularities in the world. Hume points out that we simply don’t know whether that will change tomorrow. In a sense, he anticipated the infamous “grue” problem. (I’m a bit surprised you thought nobody in the philosophical literature had thought about this kind of response anyway.)

    > I think this probabilistic/heuristic justification is all we need if we are to use induction in practice. <

    Which is something that Hume himself said. He never counseled not to use induction.

    > Having established this basis for induction, I think we can *induce* that our mathematics and logic work just fine even if we cannot rigorously prove that they are consistent. <

    But since you haven’t actually established any basis at all…

    > People have the intuition that certain things are right or wrong, but they disagree over which things these are, often leading to violent disputes. <

    That is certainly the case, though these disagreements are, in my opinion, often exaggerated or more superficial than one might think.

    > there are a number of different ethical systems resting on different foundations, and sometimes these foundations lead to different conclusions. <

    Again, less often than one might think.

    > The meta-ethical discussion is unavoidable. <

    I don’t think so. In fact, it is pretty never used in practice. When was the last time that you read the Ethicist column in the NYT and he started out with a disquisition on meta-ethics before proceeding to explain his reasoning on the particular issue at hand?

    dougsmith,

    > if we forego the assumption that our justifications are infinite in length, then the issue is to construct a system of justification with as few posits as possible <

    That still assumes a foundationalist approach. But logic wouldn’t fall even if one of your posits turned out to be wrong or of more limited application than you thought. The case of the much disputed “law” of the excluded middle being one in point.

    Seth,

    > I think it is equally important that we do keep the 'lack of a foundation' principle always in mind. It serves as an important protection against the hubris that experts in any given field can fall into thinking they have access to what is the 'real' or' true' foundation. <

    Indeed. Though that works, say, just as well for the scientists…

    Mike,

    > moral behavior is contingent on the existence of conscious creatures capable of reflecting on potential consequences of their actions <

    Sure, but given that those same creatures are characterized by a non-arbitrary set of behaviors, preferences, etc. that doesn’t make ethics arbitrary at all. There is a big difference between arbitrariness and contingency.

    > it just seems to me that any attempt to ground moral norms in something that transcends human experience is just a waste of time. … I'm not really sure why, then, the meta-ethical discussion is even relevant to us at all. <

    Because the foundationalist might simply respond that you still need *some* kind of grounding, even though not a transcendent one.

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    1. Hi Massimo,

      I think maybe I didn't phrase my argument clearly enough and that you're slightly missing my point.

      >For that justification to go through you already have to buy into the assumption that there are sufficiently stable regularities in the world. Hume points out that we simply don’t know whether that will change tomorrow.<

      Yeah, we don't know that the world tomorrow will be the same as the world yesterday.

      But we don't have to buy into the fact that there are regularities which will extend into the future.

      We have observed regularities in the past, and sure, those regularities could disappear. The odds that they will disappear right now or any time soon are tiny, because otherwise we would be living at a very special and unique time in history. It is more probable that we are not. We are therefore justified in believing that those regularities will hold, at least for the time being.

      For a simple analogy, consider drawing balls out of a basket. Suppose I know there are 1000 balls in the basket, and I draw out 999 at random, and find them all to be black. One ball remains. Am I justified in believing it to be black?

      I think so, because the odds that I would leave the only non-black ball to last are one in a thousand. The alternative proposition, that all balls are black, seems far more probable. I think this is very like what is happening when we perform induction.

      We have very good grounds for believing the speed of light will be the same tomorrow as it is today. I think we have far less grounds for certainty that it will be the same in a trillion years.

      >I’m a bit surprised you thought nobody in the philosophical literature had thought about this kind of response anyway.<

      I'm making no such claim. I'm just giving my take on it, and explaining why I don't think induction is as problematic as ethics.

      [On meta-ethics being inevitable]
      >I don’t think so. In fact, it is pretty never used in practice.<

      Really? Maybe not in a column, but I think it's inevitable whenever disagreement arises. Common ground needs to be established if possible. That may not always get down to foundational bedrock, but I think it does quite often.

      On abortion, for example, we may find disagreement on whether human life is sacred. The pro-life side will say it is because God. The pro-choice may make a utilitarian or virtue ethics argument about suffering or personhood.

      In this example, and I think in many others, it seems clear that the disagreement stems from different meta-ethical foundations.

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    2. DM,

      If you seek to establish common ground, and you acknowledge that disagreement stems from different meta-ethical foundations, then perhaps it makes sense to set meta-ethics aside to "focus instead on whatever pressing moral question is at hand."

      In case of abortion, this could take form of arguing that reducing abortions is a worthwhile goal that we should pursue by providing better social support, free birth control, etc.

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    3. You could be right, Alexey, however if your opponent is starting from a foundation that assumes that abortion is wrong, period, then you're not going to make much progress. Their foundation must be questioned first or else you move on.

      Delete
  11. Alexey,

    > slavery persisted for almost a century after Thomas Jefferson wrote "All men are created equal," and it was not stopped by a superior meta-ethical argument. Similar gap can be detected in modern ethical problems. <

    Agreed, though ironically Jefferson’s statement (which as we all know he was not coherent enough to apply to his own household) was in fact a meta-ethical one…

    C,

    > Many people who do meta-ethics (and, more specifically, ask the question of what grounds an ethical judgment) aren't doing it for the purpose of laying a foundation for settling first-order ethical problems. They just find the question intrinsically interesting. <

    Right, and as I said that is a perfectly legitimate activity in philosophy. Analogous to epistemologists who are interested in the problem of induction. They don’t do it because they wish to then proceed to solve some specific inferential problem.

    > So it's not bizarre for people to be intrigued by the meta question in ethics, but not in mathematics or science. <

    Except when those people — and there are several — use the meta-ethical “gotcha!” to forestall any discussion in first-order ethical problems. Like some of my readers…

    > it doesn't always make sense to say "give the ethics’ 'meta' itch a rest too, and focus instead on whatever pressing moral question is at hand.' That would be like telling philosophers of math to stop bothering with the 'meta' questions and just focus on solving math problems. <

    I hope it’s clear from the content of the post that I’m not doing that at all.

    Deepak,

    > There are many many logical fallacies that we commit which are standard strategies for every day life. Should I listen to my doctor? Or is that an argument from authority when i have absolutely no medical skills? <

    That’s an interesting topic in itself. It is not necessarily fallacious to ask an expert if one has good reasons to believe the expert has credentials. Same, in reverse, about sources you have good independent reasons to think you can’t trust (like the Discovery Institute).

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  12. I think the reason so many people remain interested in meta-ethics is pretty simple. There are too many ethical issues with widespread disagreement. Finding some way to authoritatively break the impasses would be very appealing. (I've personally never been able to confidently place myself in the meta-ethical tree, but I see a great deal of value in Jonathan Haidt's work and normatively think of myself as a virtue ethicist.)

    The other areas aren't nearly as contentious, so their meta aspects don't seem to stick as much.

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    1. >There are too many ethical issues with widespread disagreement.<

      I see a lot of ethical disagreements come from conflicts between revealed knowledge (or outright ignorance) with science and rationality.

      It would be difficult for philosophical arguments to compete with the "ultimate" authority.

      Are you talking about something different?

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    2. Alexey Gorokhov,
      By authoritative, I only meant in a manner that would have the same acceptance as empirical evidence does in settling scientific disputes. I think the strong interest in meta-ethics is ultimately a search for that way to settle those disputes. Sadly, I suspect it's a futile endeavor since there's no guarantee anyone would accept a meta-ethical framework that didn't tell them what they wanted to hear.

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    3. SelfAwarePatterns,

      Makes sense, thank you for clarifying.

      I share your sadness, especially in light of even empirically settled topics like evolution failing to get widespread acceptance.

      Delete
  13. @ Massimo

    > But invariably, regardless of what the specific impetus is for a given post, one or more of our readers brings up the “meta” question, i.e. the question of what could possibly ground our ethical judgments to begin with. <

    I believe it is a fair question, especially when it appears that you are espousing an ethical theory that smacks of moral realism.

    > But meta-issues are notoriously difficult, especially when they are approached from a so-called foundationalist perspective. <

    I guess it is difficult when you try to rationally justify moral realism in strictly materialistic terms

    > I happen to be both a naturalist and a virtue ethicist, which meta-ethically speaking means that I think the ability to experience moral sentiments evolved in our social primate ancestors and has then developed culturally into a number of principled and practical ways to conduct one’s own life, as well as to deal with other people in a way that leaves as much room as possible for individual flourishing while also improving social justice. <

    Virtue ethics is based on a teleological worldview and presupposes the ideal or perfect good (traditionally known as "God"). So, unless you understand the evolutionary process to be a teleological one, then I can't see how you can rationally justify a theory of virtue ethics.

    > Nevertheless, pretty soon one needs to move away from the “meta” analysis and get down to everyday ethical judgments. Why? Because life demands it, darn it! <

    Translation: "I can't rationally justify my ethical position."

    > Induction, in its varied forms, is the basis of both commonsensical and scientific reasoning. So if we have no logical justification for induction it means we have no logical justification for pretty much any of our empirical knowledge, all scientific knowledge included! Oops. <

    That's correct. The "problem of induction" implies that the scientific method is ultimately based of faith. (It can't be rationally justified.)

    > But notice what you’ve just done: you have acknowledged the “meta” issue and promptly set it aside, because after all you’ve got a life to live, or a grant proposal to write. <

    I haven't done any such thing. But you have. In fact, when I have brought these "meta" (or "foundational") issues to your attention in previous threads, your tack was simply to evade the issues (which appears to be your modus operandi).

    > But it wasn’t the end of mathematics, was it? It’s not like people stopped doing it because they thought “oh my god! We can’t find a complete logical foundation for mathematics! It must all be rubbish!” <

    That's why Whitehead postulated God in his process metaphysics. (I guess you could say he went from being a mathematical Platonist to a full-fledged Platonist.)

    > . So, really, not even logic itself has a (logical?) grounding in something solid. Even that “meta” question seems unanswerable! <

    That might be another problem for the atheist, but not for the theist.

    > But one of his most famous moves was to introduce the metaphor of a “web of knowledge” to replace the commonly used one of an “edifice of knowledge.” Unlike buildings, webs don’t have foundations, they have (many) threads. <

    "But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great." Luke 6:49

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    1. >That's correct. The "problem of induction" implies that the scientific method is ultimately based of faith. (It can't be rationally justified.)<

      Would you say that squirrels are basing their activities on faith when preparing for the winter?

      Delete
    2. @ Alexey Gorokhov

      > Would you say that squirrels are basing their activities on faith when preparing for the winter? <

      I don't know about squirrels. But I would say that people are definitely exercising an element of faith in regards to their retirement nest egg

      Delete
    3. Alastair Paisley,

      It seems you want to define "faith" in a way that allows you to say that humans who prepare for the future have it, but animals who prepare for the future do not. How would you do it?

      Delete
    4. @ Alexey Gorokhov

      > It seems you want to define "faith" in a way that allows you to say that humans who prepare for the future have it, but animals who prepare for the future do not. How would you do it? <

      Merriam-Webster defines "faith" as "strong belief or trust in someone or something."

      Do squirrels ever exhibit "trust" in someone or something? I would say "yes." Squirrels in a city park appear to exhibit trust in people, especially when they are receiving "handouts." Squirrels also exhibit "fear." (Most animals (as well as most people) exhibit some element of faith and fear.)

      Delete
    5. Alastair Paisley,

      Thank you for clarifying that by "faith" you simply mean exhibiting trust. I can now make sense of your earlier statement:

      >scientific method is ultimately based of faith<

      Delete
    6. @Alastair

      >Virtue ethics is based on a teleological worldview and presupposes the ideal or perfect good (traditionally known as "God").<

      Or, you know, maybe virtue ethics just feels right to Massimo. He's not necessarily claiming that it's the One True Framework or that there is such a thing as a perfect good. It's just what makes most sense to him.

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    7. @ Disagreeable Me

      > He's not necessarily claiming that it's the One True Framework or that there is such a thing as a perfect good. <

      Moral objectivism or realism presupposes an ideal or perfect good.

      Delete
    8. Good thing he's not a moral objectivist or realist then!

      Delete
    9. @ Disagreeable Me

      > Good thing he's not a moral objectivist or realist then! <

      The bad thing is that he's not a moral relativist either.

      Delete
    10. I'm not sure moral relativism is the same as moral anti-realism.

      There are certainly different types of moral relativists.

      For many, moral relativism has the connotation of not judging others, especially other cultures and other times, by the standards of one's own morality.

      But one can be a judgmental moral anti-realist. I am. I have my own idea of what morality is, but I make no claim that this has any objective basis in reality. It's just what I personally see as right and wrong.

      But just because I don't think it has a basis in objective reality doesn't mean I don't cling to my own moral feelings and act accordingly. I condemn cultures that, for example, execute homosexuals. By my standards, that is a horrific practice, and my standards are necessarily those that are important to me.

      Delete
    11. Actually, per Wikipedia, there are three types of moral relativism: descriptive, meta-ethical and normative.

      I think you are right that Massimo is a descriptive and meta-ethical moral relativist, but not a normative moral relativist. I'm the same, but I would probably adhere more to utilitarianism than virtue ethics (although I'm open to persuasion on that).

      Delete
  14. Interesting post Massimo, I wonder though if ethical foundations is a more commonly brought up because most people think their "mere opinion" of ethics is legitimate view not in need of rational arguments, as opposed to say opinions on science and math.

    I think of it as analogous to research done in psychology where people are skeptical of psychological science claims because they have a strong belief about some fact based on personal experience. Similarly, I think many people are simply stating their ethical opinion (regardless of it's quality) and than claim that there are so many different views unlike other disciplines.

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  15. I am still not quite sure why induction has to be justified deductively in the first place. The only available answer appears to be 'because many philosophers start from deductive reasoning and consider everything else to be second-rate'.

    It is enough for me to know that induction must necessarily be a good heuristic in every universe that shows some kind of regularities, that a universe without some kind of regularities would be inimical to the kind of life that could even begin to worry about the question, and that a universe without some kind of regularities may well be impossible. In other words, induction will always be a good heuristic to those who are in a position to come up with it.

    As for ethics, they are about how we treat each other. It appears to follow that WE get to decide about ethics then. Thus no logical grounding is needed beyond a collective discussion or negotiation about what we want and what serves our needs and desires best. And that is how our moral systems actually do appear to evolve: starting from a fundamental sense of fairness instilled into us by natural selection we figure out through trial-and-error and negotiation what works best for us.

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    1. Hi Alex,

      I think you're spot on about induction.

      I think you're also right about ethics, but I think ethics benefits from a logical grounding to resolve disputes. Otherwise you get fights over what different people think their sky-god wants them to do.

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    2. Yes, of course we cannot peacefully solve any conflict unless we are reasonable about it. But beyond merely being convinced that there is no way to ground ethics in the sense of arriving at the one true set of morals from first principles I am increasingly convinced that that would not even be desirable. Ethics are about us humans, so we get to call the shots. I consider them closer to collective preferences than to independent facts.

      Delete
  16. Massimo

    >"Why, then, can’t you do the same with ethics? Why does the meta-ethical hitch bother you so much, while you seem to be able to gingerly ignore the meta-scientific one?"<

    - I suppose one of the reasons (among many reasons) as to why the problem of induction, when applied to scientific reasoning (which provides some of the structure for common day reasoning), doesn't preoccupy my time nearly as much as the foundations of ethical thinking is because scientific reasoning isn't only justified based on inductive reasoning since it also integrates mathematics at every turn it can (or so I'm told), and mathematics isn't justified with induction, but deduction.



    >"Isn’t that a powerful picture? Don’t you feel the foundational hitch gradually lose its lure?"<

    - Lol, no.



    >"A foundationalist in ethics, for instance may reasonably ask what grounds (notice the metaphor!) our ethical judgment in general (as opposed to asking what reasoning has brought one to a particular ethical judgment about whatever matter happens to be under discussion). "<

    - I don't understand how asking what grounds an ethical judgement is different from asking what reasoning brought someone to a particular ethical conclusion? Isn't the former interested in step one, and the latter simply glossing over step one without ever addressing it? Either way, if you start at step one you can still reason your way to a conclusion on an ethical dilemma, right?



    >"If you are not bothered (too much) by the lack of foundational grounding of commonsense, science, mathematics and logic, give the ethics’ “meta” itch a rest too, and focus instead on whatever pressing moral question is at hand."<

    - Who says that I'm not also interested in the foundational reasons as to why the order of operations are what they are for Mathematics, or any of the other fascinating foundational topics in these areas?

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  17. Massimo's piece seems to me to be saying something like:– "People question what I have to say about ethics by asking whether it is able to be grounded in a fundamental way. But the claims of scientists and logicians may also be questioned in terms of fundamental grounding. So my claims are no more or less dubious than theirs."

    The only trouble is, every ethicist has his own view and his own system; whereas views in the empirical and formal sciences converge.

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    1. I think that's exactly right. Well put.

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  18. If we are all equal, then we all have a right to life or at least to not being killed. This seems like a good place to start for a basis of morality.
    I fear that one day science will use induction to show that it would be great for 99.9 percent of the human race if .1 percent of us were eliminated tomorrow.

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    Replies
    1. It's a good start but it's not really enough.

      Who counts as having a right to life? The unborn? Serial killers? Long-term coma patients?

      What about people who want to die? Does their right to life mean they should be allowed to die or not?

      The problem is we all agree on the big simple questions. The finer points at the margins are where the problems arise and where a solid foundation for ethics would be helpful.

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  19. Massimo,

    The “web” picture of knowledge, while intriguing, fails to account for two of the main characteristics of scientific knowledge.

    First of all, a web is too “egalitarian”: it does not account for the fact that different fields of knowledge have very different levels of certainty (subjective probability.) Basic math is much more certain than physics and the fundamental laws of physics are much more certain than anything else.

    Second, scientific explanations are “directional,” while a web is undirected. For instance chemistry is explained by physics (after QM and the Pauli principle.) Biology is in turn explained by chemistry and physics (no new principles are needed.) Note that the directionality of scientific explanations is a much weaker statement than complete reduction. (Naive reductionism fails in practice because of computational complexity, etc.)

    So, while the foundational project has been a partial failure, even in mathematics, the web picture fails to account for the nature of scientific explanations in practice.

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  20. Given some of the comments here, I find it interesting to juxtapose them with the comments made on your post sometime back about whether science and its methodology could "solve," or serve as the basis for solving, ethical questions.

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  21. Alastair,

    > I believe it is a fair question, especially when it appears that you are espousing an ethical theory that smacks of moral realism. <

    Yet another mischaracterization of my views. If anything, I’m a naturalist, not a realist. I don’t think that ethical truths are “out there” independently of human minds. (While as you know, I wouldn’t be so sure about mathematical truths.)

    > Virtue ethics is based on a teleological worldview and presupposes the ideal or perfect good <

    Aristotle’s version did. Virtue ethics has evolved since, take a look, for instance, at the work of Philippa Foot.

    > The "problem of induction" implies that the scientific method is ultimately based of faith. <

    First, there is no such thing as THE scientific method. Second, if you really think so I sincerely invite you to jump off a very tall building to show me that my “faith” in the theory of gravity is misplaced.

    > Luke 6:49 <

    It’s really hard for me to take seriously anyone who quotes scriptures.

    Alex,

    > It is enough for me to know that induction must necessarily be a good heuristic in every universe that shows some kind of regularities <

    It’s enough for me too, and for Hume. But if you are not at least disturbed by the fact that there is no logical foundation for inductive reasoning I think you are a bit too cavalier about the whole subject.

    > no logical grounding is needed beyond a collective discussion or negotiation about what we want and what serves our needs and desires best. <

    Yup, which is why virtue ethics fits me rather nicely. It takes into account both human biological nature and the fact that our ethical problems change with cultural evolution.

    Jacob,

    > because scientific reasoning isn't only justified based on inductive reasoning since it also integrates mathematics at every turn it can (or so I'm told), and mathematics isn't justified with induction, but deduction <

    First off, a lot of scientific reasoning makes little contact with mathematical models (many cases in biology, geology, etc.). Second, as I mentioned in the post, mathematics itself doesn’t have logically justified foundations, so…

    > I don't understand how asking what grounds an ethical judgement is different from asking what reasoning brought someone to a particular ethical conclusion? <

    Huge difference. Similar to someone asking you why he thinks the speed of light is 299,792,458 m/s and you, instead of providing details about measurements and experimental setups, went on answering with a disquisition on the rationality of inductive reasoning.

    > Who says that I'm not also interested in the foundational reasons as to why the order of operations are what they are for Mathematics, or any of the other fascinating foundational topics in these areas? <

    I didn’t say one shouldn’t be interested, only that one shouldn’t be bothered (too much) by the lack of a rigorous answer.

    Mark,

    > The only trouble is, every ethicist has his own view and his own system; whereas views in the empirical and formal sciences converge. <

    Actually, there is a heck of a lot more convergence about ethical reasoning on specific cases (yes, still less than in science, but that’s not the point) than there is about meta-ethics. Indeed, if one reads the primary literature in ethics one finds that meta-ethical disputes are pretty much never on the horizon.

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    1. @ Massimo

      > Yet another mischaracterization of my views. If anything, I’m a naturalist, not a realist. <

      As I see it, there only two options here: moral realism or moral relativism. You either subscribe to one or the other. And if you deny that, then your position (whatever it may be) is contradictory.

      > Aristotle’s version did. Virtue ethics has evolved since, take a look, for instance, at the work of Philippa Foot <

      Well, if your version of virtue ethics has evolved to the point where it no longer presupposes the ideal or perfect good, then it really doesn't qualify as virtue ethics anymore. (It would appear that you have lost your moral compass.)

      > First, there is no such thing as THE scientific method. Second, if you really think so I sincerely invite you to jump off a very tall building to show me that my “faith” in the theory of gravity is misplaced. <

      The bottom line is that you live by faith. (No one lives strictly by rationality.)

      > It’s really hard for me to take seriously anyone who quotes scripture <

      And this is coming from a professor of philosophy who is actually bragging about the fact that his metaphysical worldview has no foundation.

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    2. Massimo -

      >"I didn’t say one shouldn’t be interested, only that one shouldn’t be bothered (too much) by the lack of a rigorous answer."<

      - I really want to know what you mean by a lack of a rigorous answer... is it that these explanations have equally competing explanations that lead to the same conclusions (or even different explanations that have different conclusions); or is it that these explanations are the best that we've got, but could never be "proved" as completely tight nit. It seems that the problem of induction is certainly in the second category, but the foundational arguments for ethical value systems is in the first category. Deontology vs Utilitarianism vs Virtue Ethics...

      If it's true that there are different competing foundational arguments for ethics (instead of alternative foundational arguments that can't actually compete), then there would definitely be substantial differences between these two topics. I've never heard any argument that could be said to compete with induction that would actually offer an alternative to induction (deduction is in addition to induction, not instead of). There's certainly been a couple of huge things in my life that didn't hold up to previous observations, however those failed observations (or lack of observations) aren't arguments against inductive reasoning... Have you ever heard of an argument that could compete with induction?

      Delete
  22. DM,

    > The odds that they will disappear right now or any time soon are tiny <

    Sorry, but you keep missing Hume’s point. There is *no rational way* to say what the odds are outside of induction, which is what you are using. Which is circular. (Your example of the balls drawn from a basket was a bit condescending, my friend. C’mon, you seriously think that philosophers, and yours truly in particular, haven’t thought about that sort of scenario?)

    > Really? Maybe not in a column, but I think it's inevitable whenever disagreement arises. <

    No, as I said above. If you read the primary ethical literature you will hardly find references to meta-ethics. Consider this analogy: do you see mathematicians disagreeing about a particular question by invoking Platonism vs. constructivism? Don’t think so.

    > The pro-life side will say it is because God. <

    Yes, theologically “reasons” are the only exception. But they are *never* invoked in either the professional philosophical or legal literature. And for good reason.

    Filippo,

    > a web is too “egalitarian” <

    Not in Quine’s view. He explicitly said that mathematics, logic, and certain aspects of both science and commonsense are much more robust threads than others. If we ever consider replacing one of those we better have very strong reasons and an excellent alternative.

    > scientific explanations are “directional,” while a web is undirected. For instance chemistry is explained by physics <

    First off, a strong theoretical-reductionist model of science is actually very much debatable. Second, don’t push it, my friend, it’s just an analogy! My point is simply that it is a better analogy than than of a building.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Massimo,

      Sorry, I don't think I am using induction to justify induction. I'm not sure if this because I am but don't realise it or because you're not seeing my argument.

      It might help if you explained what's wrong with my analogy to drawing balls. I don't think I'm being condescending because I'm not assuming this argument has never been considered before. Far from it. I'm just explaining the way it seems to me.

      Googling it now, my argument seems to be the same as that proposed by David Stove in "Rationality of Induction" and Donald Williams in "The Ground of Induction". I think they have it right. Induction works as long as it is understood to be probabilistic and not definite.

      The argument as they express it is that induction is justified as long as you have no reason to think that the sample from which you draw your conclusions is unrepresentative of the whole. I can't see a problem with that.

      >do you see mathematicians disagreeing about a particular question by invoking Platonism vs. constructivism?<

      That's different though. Disagreement on these do not need to differences in mathematical results. Disagreements on the foundations of ethics can lead to different ethical results.

      I think a better analogy to mathematics would be the need to clarify what particular set of axioms are being adopted, e.g. whether the axiom of choice is being adopted or not.

      Delete
  23. Massimo, your comment to Mark: "Actually, there is a heck of a lot more convergence about ethical reasoning on specific cases (yes, still less than in science, but that’s not the point) than there is about meta-ethics. Indeed, if one reads the primary literature in ethics one finds that meta-ethical disputes are pretty much never on the horizon."

    Could you elaborate on this? "Primary literature" is a bit ambiguous for me, especially since I got into one of those crazy Facebook "debates" with someone who was promoting Ayn Rand's notion of "rational self-interest," along with his contention that it has its roots in Aristotle. In other words, while the professional philosopher may find that "meta-ethical disputes are pretty much never on the horizon," this doesn't seem to be the case in daily life.

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    Replies
    1. Good question about the convergence. I don't see it, though it may be more common among professional thinkers (but they probably are not representative).

      I even see that it's difficult to be convergent with yourself. A classical result in studies of racist attitudes is that person A dislikes group B, but not his neighbour although he belongs to B. Your partner thinks that she should be honest with you, but when you arrive with your new $ 3000 race bike - an impulse purchase - she swallows, smiles and says: "Great!"

      I always get the impression that the meta-move is popular in ethics because convergence is so hard to achieve. A and B disagree about an ethical problem, but they probably can agree about the fact that A holds his position because he's a virtue ethicist, and B because he's a consequentialist. They haven't solved the problem, but at least they know where the disagreement came from.



      Delete
    2. Convergence among non-professionals on science issues is not strong either, just look at the less than 50% of people the US believing in evolution.

      Why is the ethical convergence of experts (philosophers) not given the same weight as scientific convergence among scientists?

      Delete
    3. Hi Imad,

      Is there such ethical convergence?

      Well, there is to a degree, but I think it's a much more divergent field than science, especially between religious philosophers such as Plantinga and atheist philosophers such as Massimo.

      What convergence there is is arguably more due to a liberalisation and secularisation of moral values in society in general rather than due to philosophical progress.

      Delete
    4. One could argue that people like Plantinga are equivalent to creation scientists, the creation scientists may claim all types of science claims mixed with theology, as would Plantinga regarding ethics but that doesn't mean we should consider his opinion important. His arguments fail and that's why his view is a minority one in the field.

      I think Massimo had the right to stay that Plantinga's views are incoherent because christianity itself is incoherent just as much as a scientist can refute arguments of creationists for why evolution is supposedly not true.

      I'm not saying there are no disagreements in ethics, I'm just saying that the differences are present in many different fields but for some reason in ethics, people like to amplify the differences from minority views and use that against the field.

      As for is there convergence, I would argue that philosophers like Derek Parfit in his book "On What Matters" does show that there is large convergence of ethical views.

      Delete
  24. This post is tragicomical. I both like and dislike it. It's philosophy exquisitely eating itself and defecating anti-philosophy. Who needs Lawrence Krauss when you have philosophical arguments to dismiss the very point of philosophy? When you give up searching for reasons/bases for positions what else is there left to philosophy? Massimo, you say that since scientists don't need to worry about the problem of induction and mathematicians don't need to worry about platonism vs constructivism then philosophers don't need to worry about the metaquestions either. But then isn't philosophy pointless? Is Lawrence Krauss right? Do you just go with platonism if you like abstract objects, virtue ethics if you like Aristotle, or naturalism because you don't like gods? Are all of our preferences ultimately aesthetic? I found this post profoundly nihilistic and quite honest.

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    1. Yep, pointing out the limitations of human reasoning, whilst working with(in) those limitations to determine the most reasonable course is just so anti-philosophical. I wonder what it is that philosophers do? Mmmmmm

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    2. @ Jake Zielsdorf

      > This post is tragicomical. <

      I agree with that. I would also argue that this post qualifies as an indictment against the atheistic worldview.

      Delete
  25. Massimo,

    If you want us to get rid of the meta-itch, probably you should talk about subjects that doesn't make it absolutely necessary to talk about the meta issues. Instead you write articles make it absolutely necessary to talk about the meta issues, sometimes put in some virtue ethics into them, and tell not to worry about the meta issues.

    Let's take a look at your most recent articles about moral issues.

    1. The Philosophy of Suicide - Good article. This is a rare one that doesn't require us to talk about the meta issues.

    2. The Undergraduate Atheists’ Thesis - How can we talk about this without talking about the meta-issues when you yourself had talked about the meta-issues. Is-ought is-ought is-ought

    3. Is there such a thing as moral expertise? - Again, how could we avoid talking about the meta-issues? We are not talking about whether not to kill someone. We are talking about whether we could be experts at deciding that.

    4. Objective moral truth? Thoughts on Carrier’s take — Part II - Really? You're saying we have a meta-itch

    5 Objective moral truth? Thoughts on Carrier’s take — Part I - What were you saying about having a meta-itch?

    6. Ethical questions science can’t answer - See what I'm talking about?

    Basically, you write about meta-issues, and then rant about us having a meta-itch. If you want us to not be obsessed about the meta-issues, maybe you should write more object-level articles like the philosophy of suicide one.

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  26. Great article Massimo.

    I must say that I have a strong affinity towards foundationalism, and not simply because on the face of it it seems to work very well as an answer to the epistemological regress problem. It seems like logic, mathematics, and physics all employ more fundamental (foundational) principles that allow for the reproduction of many regularities and observations that we see in nature.

    That being said, coherentism also makes a good deal of sense, and I think it could be incorporated into foundationalism. This would allow the strengths of both ideas to be included in a unifying framework. Susan Haack has done some very interesting work on this, which she calls 'foundherentism.'

    Any thoughts on this middle road?

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  27. Massimo,

    > But if you are not at least disturbed by the fact that there is no logical foundation for inductive reasoning I think you are a bit too cavalier about the whole subject.

    Well, as I wrote, it is possible that philosophers share the assumption that deductive reasoning is the alpha and omega of reasoning and everything else has to be based on it. I do not know where that assumption comes from (beyond tradition) and I do not necessarily share it.

    > Yup, which is why virtue ethics fits me rather nicely. It takes into account both human biological nature and the fact that our ethical problems change with cultural evolution.

    As mentioned a few threads earlier, I do not understand how a virtue ethicist figures out what is virtuous, or at least not how their way of figuring it out would differ from somebody who is not a virtue ethicist.

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  28. "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." Thoreau

    If you need help with your foundation I suggest starting with this =.

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  29. The idea of a web of knowledge is beautiful, and certainly resonates with the way I construct my 'knowledge' of reality. Just don't ask what the web is attached to.

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  30. Thomas,

    > while the professional philosopher may find that "meta-ethical disputes are pretty much never on the horizon," this doesn't seem to be the case in daily life. <

    Absolutely. But I was referring to the professional philosophical literature on ethics. In terms of daily life we still live in a country where 80% of people believe in a big guy in the sky who is very curious about your sexual activities, and another good percentage insists in thinking Ayn Rand was an actual philosopher. I don’t mean to dismiss the difficulty of these issues in practical daily discourse, but the audience I am addressing here is usually more sophisticated than that.

    DM,

    > It might help if you explained what's wrong with my analogy to drawing balls. <

    Sorry, but still wide of the mark, and for the same reason. The very thing that allows us to talk about probabilities (as in frequencies of events, expectations, etc.) is that we use induction.

    > I think they have it right. Induction works as long as it is understood to be probabilistic and not definite. <

    Again, this misses the point entirely. One needs induction to even talk about probabilities.

    > Disagreement on these do not need to differences in mathematical results. Disagreements on the foundations of ethics can lead to different ethical results. <

    As I said earlier, they actually don’t, in many cases, except when people invoke, literally, a Deus ex Machina…

    Patrick,

    > A classical result in studies of racist attitudes is that person A dislikes group B, but not his neighbour although he belongs to B. <

    We are obviously talking about unreflective people. I was referring to convergence among professional moral philosophers.

    Alastair,

    > As I see it, there only two options here: moral realism or moral relativism. <

    That’s your own limitation.

    > if your version of virtue ethics has evolved to the point where it no longer presupposes the ideal or perfect good, then it really doesn't qualify as virtue ethics anymore. <

    Says who, you? I guess it’s too bad that professional moral philosophers disagree then.

    > The bottom line is that you live by faith. (No one lives strictly by rationality.) <

    The bottom line is that you keep forcing absurd dichotomies into my worldview so that you can feel good about your own.

    Jacob,

    > I really want to know what you mean by a lack of a rigorous answer <

    Both your alternatives may hold, depending on which foundationalist problem one is referring to. Notice, however, than even in meta-ethics certain kinds of foundationalism (e.g., theism, or Stoic-type Logos) are no longer tenable.

    > I've never heard any argument that could be said to compete with induction that would actually offer an alternative to induction <

    That’s not exactly the question. The issue is not which alternative to induction, but how to independently justify induction.

    Jake,

    > This post is tragicomical. I both like and dislike it. <

    I’m both glad and saddened that I did and did not please you.

    > When you give up searching for reasons/bases for positions what else is there left to philosophy? <

    Who said anything about giving up? The point of the post was to put things in a different perspective from what is usually assumed.

    > But then isn't philosophy pointless? <

    Not at all. First because I didn’t say that philosophers don’t need to bother with meta questions (at times I do wonder whether people actually read my posts or just scan them quickly for keywords to react to). Second because the overwhelming majority of philosophical scholarship is not about meta issues, in ethics as much as in other branches of philosophy.

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    1. Hi Massimo,

      >The very thing that allows us to talk about probabilities (as in frequencies of events, expectations, etc.) is that we use induction.<

      Great, progress!

      I think this is where we disagree. I may be wrong here, but I don't think this is the case.

      If I have a fair coin, the odds of a coin toss giving heads is 50%. There are two possibilities, no reason to think one side will come up any more than the other, and the outcome I'm looking for comprises 50% of the space of possible outcomes.

      Now, I realise that's not a formal deductive or mathematical argument, but I think it's pretty established mathematics that that is how it works, and mathematicians are not usually in the business of using induction.

      Am I really using induction in concluding that the odds are 50%? Where am I doing it (because I just don't see it)?

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    2. @ Massimo

      > The bottom line is that you keep forcing absurd dichotomies into my worldview so that you can feel good about your own. <

      I do feel good about my theistic worldview. It has a foundation. Your atheistic worldview does not (by your own admission). This explains why you always become evasive whenever I broach foundational issues.

      * I have no problem grounding the mathematical abstractions we presuppose in practice. You do.

      * I have no problem grounding the laws of logic that we presuppose in practice. You do.

      * I have no problem grounding the free will we presuppose in practice. You do.

      * I have no problem grounding the absolute truth that we presuppose in our quest for the truth. You do.

      * I have no problem grounding the ideal or perfect beauty that we presuppose in our quest to create art. You do.

      * I have no problem grounding the ideal or perfect good that we presuppose in our pursuit of happiness. You do.

      The bottom line is that I can rationally justify in theory what we presuppose in practice. You cannot.

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    3. Massimo-

      >"Both your alternatives may hold, depending on which foundationalist problem one is referring to."<

      - Interesting, and you seem to not think the problem of induction would belong to the first category, but foundationalist arguments for ethics would certainly belong to both categories which would justify spending more time on it than justifications for induction.



      >"The issue is not which alternative to induction, but how to independently justify induction."<

      - But that does seem to be the issue with ethics, which is what makes the complexity of these two issues fundamentally different from each other, right? There's still the problem of independent justification and internal consistency (which I would argue doesn't have the same circular problem, but that's a different discussion), but those question are on top of the question of which alternatives are available which sorta takes the discussion to a whole new magnitude since the theories sorta combat each other instead of just trying to justify something that doesn't have a competing theory.

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  31. brainoil,

    > If you want us to get rid of the meta-itch <

    One more time: I DON’T! I just said that too often the meta-itch is used to avoid engagement with first order ethical discussions.

    > you write about meta-issues, and then rant about us having a meta-itch. If you want us to not be obsessed about the meta-issues, maybe you should write more object-level articles like the philosophy of suicide one. <

    If you don’t mind, it’s my blog and I write about whatever the heck I please. But flippant responses aside, see my comment(s) above.

    pete,

    > It seems like logic, mathematics, and physics all employ more fundamental (foundational) principles that allow for the reproduction of many regularities and observations that we see in nature. <

    Actually, there is a difference between some principles being more basic than others (which is definitely the norm), and some of them being rock-basic, i.e., foundational.

    > Susan Haack has done some very interesting work on this, which she calls ‘foundherentism.' <

    Yes, that is indeed interesting work. But I’d like to point out that I am not a simple coherentist, and neither, I think, was Quine (though I’m not a Quine scholar, so I could be wrong). For Quine the web of knowledge is anchored by our basic reasoning and perceptive abilities, so it’s not just coherence.

    Alex,

    > it is possible that philosophers share the assumption that deductive reasoning is the alpha and omega of reasoning and everything else has to be based on it <

    I think you’d be hard pressed to find an epistemologist or logician who holds that view.

    > I do not understand how a virtue ethicist figures out what is virtuous <

    Different discussion, I’m working on a new post about virtues, so stay tuned…

    Brian,

    > pointing out the limitations of human reasoning, whilst working with(in) those limitations to determine the most reasonable course is just so anti-philosophical. I wonder what it is that philosophers do? <

    I have no idea how you got the impression that that’s what I was saying in the post.

    Zach,

    > Just don't ask what the web is attached to. <

    See my comment above, to pete.

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    1. >If you don’t mind, it’s my blog and I write about whatever the heck I please

      That's a gun-toting, Bible thumping angry Southerner reply.

      >I just said that too often the meta-itch is used to avoid engagement with first order ethical discussions.

      Where? It certainly couldn't be in the comment sections of any of those articles that I mentioned except the first one because none of them except the first one are about first order ethics.

      Can you give me a concrete example of this? It's better if it's something I've said so that we don't offend anyone else.

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    2. Thanks for the response Massimo. I do think that a combination of both ideas is very fruitful and might be able to make some headway in epistemology.

      I definitely agree with you that more simplistic descriptions of reality should not be reduced to more foundational ones. That being said, I think one has to approach the problem by incorporating a bit of pragmatism. Hume was revolutionary in revealing to us the harsh fact that inductive methods could never give us certain knowledge of something.

      That being said, if we have a vast amount of evidence that something is real or that some pattern exists, it's inane to still hold some deep seated fear in your heart. Yes, its good to be cognizant of the problem as outlined by Hume, but it doesn't impede us from continuing our march towards understanding the true nature of reality.

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  32. Massimo, it is your blog. That goes without saying. But your answer, "I don’t mean to dismiss the difficulty of these issues in practical daily discourse, but the audience I am addressing here is usually more sophisticated than that," is not satisfying."

    While I may follow what I believe may be a coherent ethical way of life, problems arise when I go out into the world and encounter others whose ethics differ from mine in social and political contexts. So, I suppose a questions arises regarding ethics as to the benefit of professional philosophers and their discourse with each other if the common man has no recourse other than to characterize another's foundation for his ethical belief as "unsophisticated."

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  33. Massimo,

    >First off, a strong theoretical-reductionist model of science is actually very much debatable.<

    All the recent successes of science have been reductionistic in nature.

    Examples:

    Quantum chemistry. Molecular biology. Gene-based development.

    Even physics itself is reductionistic, examples are quarks and the Higgs boson. I remember a time when “deep thinkers” opposed both quarks and Higgs, claiming that they were too reductionistic. They were wrong, as “holistic deep thinkers” always are.

    Do you have any real example of web-based science in action?

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  34. "It is a weakness... of applied ethics in general, that so many of these “theoretical” questions are put to one side and so much is taken for granted. We must feel sympathy for some concerned moralist who, wanting to avoid getting mired in traditional metaphysical, epistemological, and linguistic issues, yields to the temptation to treat “theoretical” questions as annoying distractions. But when we ignore these questions, or dismiss them in short paragraphs..., we run the risk of being seen as constructing theories of sand on a foundation of thin air. Not everyone is willing to assume, even “for the sake of argument,” that moral realism is true."

    ~Richard Garner

    Your point of the problem with other disciplines having questionable foundations is a good one, although smacking a bit of "tu quoque." I see three larger problems here, though:

    1) It is far from clear that ethical reasoning has produced the pragmatic differences that induction or science has. It would be one thing if they were all on equal footing pragmatically. But they aren't, at least prima facie. You may reply: "but look at the moralizing that ended slavery! That gave us human rights!" However, this is ignoring the other side of the coin. Give me a random example of a political act you consider evil (slavery, genocide, wars, you name it), and I'm quite sure that one could find a political speech or document justifying that act in moral terms, so it seem to me that ethical speech is a rhetorical trick that can be used to change minds about a wide range of issues. The hypothesis that moral speech is rhetorical projection seems a much better explanation of the totality of facts than the hypothesis that the "wrong" side is actually getting any facts of the matter actually WRONG (this is Mackie's "argument from relativity" in a nutshell). In short: you're assuming moralizing and moral talk "works." I don't take that assumption for granted.

    I would further state that, at least in the case of induction, a huge amount of progress has been made in the 20th century in the fields of probability and statistics in giving a DEDUCTIVE basis to INDUCTIVE reasoning. Frequentist statistics essentially guarantees that if you act as if all inferences in all your 95% CIs are true, you will, in the long run, be right 95% of the time (WHICH ones in particular are true can never be known, though). Bayesian statistics guarantees that using your probability assessments, you can never take a losing bet. While both may not be DIRECT answers to Hume's problem, they do in a sense circumvent the problem.

    2) The view I hold, moral abolitionism (= error theory + moral talk is useless) makes a similar claim that you do when you say that "[i]t’s going to be so much more useful, really" if we drop the meta-ethical concerns. I disagree here. Moral terms are among the more contentious words used in the English language, even more so than others. Say "good" to 100 people unqualified and you'll probably get 80 different interpretations of that word going in their heads. What's useful in that? Why not just say what you mean (e.g. "that which follows a socially-prescribed duty") For shorthand? Shorthand won't get you far when different people completely misunderstand what you're trying to get across. THIS is EXACTLY why meta-ethical discussions take place so often. If you think something is the "right" thing to do, and somebody else doesn't, it is often the case that the two of you are using the word differently! And this happens a lot!

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    1. Philo,

      >While both may not be DIRECT answers to Hume's problem, they do in a sense circumvent the problem.

      Not really. The problem essentially remains the same. With things like the Solomonoff Induction, we've learnt the proper way to do induction, but that doesn't address the problem Hume raised at all, neither directly nor indirectly. We haven't circumvented the problem. We just ignore it because we've become really good at doing induction.

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  35. DM,

    >If I have a fair coin, the odds of a coin toss giving heads is 50%.<

    Unfortunately, there is no way to define a “fair coin” except by defining it as a coin that gives an equal probability to head and tail. So your statement is a definition.

    The point is that, in order to tell the two sides apart, they have to be distinguishable, so they have to be different. Consequently, you cannot use the principle of sufficient reason to infer equal probabilities. You have to use the fact that some differences, while noticeable, do not affect probabilities. But this is, in fact, an empirical observation.

    Probability theory is formally a part of mathematics but, as used in practice, it is intermediate between mathematics and physics, and its use cannot be justified without recourse to (meta-)induction, just as Massimo says.

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    1. >So your statement is a definition.<

      Sure, I agree with that. All mathematics is essentially extrapolation from definitions.

      And my example of drawing balls from a basket was no different, as everything you need to derive the probabilties was there in the example.

      > But this is, in fact, an empirical observation.<

      Not when it's a thought experiment. And, failing any reason to think that it might affect outcome, (e.g. when we're talking about drawing coloured balls from a basket), it seems reasonable to assume that the outcome is biased either way. If in doubt, you just include that as an axiom of the system you are describing and work away. It still seems to me that the system I described allows a probablistic non-circular justification for induction.

      >its use cannot be justified without recourse to (meta-)induction<

      I still don't see this, sorry.

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    2. DM,

      >It still seems to me that the system I described allows a probablistic non-circular justification for induction.<

      Sure, the system you constructed allows “a probablistic non-circular justification for induction,” *in that system*.

      The problem is to justify probabilistic induction in the real world. A “thought experiment” cannot do that. In your little world you made assumptions that are not *necessarily* valid in the real world.

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    3. >Sure, the system you constructed allows “a probablistic non-circular justification for induction,” *in that system*.<

      OK, I'm glad we agree on that much. That system was intended to serve as an analogy to the real world. It seems to me that much the same argument could be used for the real world.

      Socrates knows the sun rises every morning, but is his belief that the sun will rise tomorrow justified?

      Socrates doesn't know anything of modern astronomy or physics, so his judgement is based only on his knowledge of past sunrises.

      He has observed countless sunrises during his life, and he knows that as far as anyone knows, the sun has risen every morning in the past for as long as the world has existed. Hundreds of thousands of sunrises at least.

      But that doesn't prove it will rise tomorrow. It does seem probable that it will. Is there any way of quantifying this probability?

      Let's assume that there will be a morning when the sun rises no more. We can now ask what are the odds that tomorrow will be this morning.

      Hundreds of thousands of sunrises have been observed. Therefore, only one morning out of at least hundreds of thousands will be a morning when the rules change and the sun ceases to rise. The chances that tomorrow is that morning is therefore one out of hundreds of thousands - extremely improbable. We are therefore safe in deducing that the sun will almost certainly rise tomorrow morning, and indeed the morning after, and so on. We may eventually be wrong in our prediction, but only after a significant amount of time passes. The rule "the sun rises in the morning" will almost always hold, though it is not guaranteed to hold forever. Induction is therefore justified on a probabilistic basis.

      As far as I can see, this argument is the very same as my analogy to drawing balls from a basket. It is also very similar in its reasoning to the doomsday argument. If I'm using induction to justify induction, I'm just not seeing it.

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    5. OK, so what about Socrates and the sunrise?

      In general, if there have been thousands or millions of observations of a system obeying certain rules, the probability that the rules will stop working at any particular point *has* to be low, no matter what the specifics of the system.

      As far as I can see, this reasoning can be used to justify induction in general, including quantum mechanics, for instance.

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    7. Hi Filippo,

      That's great. I'll take your calculations as correct, as they seem plausible and you seem to know your stuff.

      Of course theory based estimates are much better, but I'm trying to establish the foundations on which those theories can be built. So we're starting off with some simple, naive observations.

      So, given that we have observed the sun rising N times, the probability that it will not rise tomorrow has an upper bound of 1/N if N is very large. A theory based estimate might make that probability much lower, but we haven't justified induction yet so theory based estimates are out.

      But if N is really large, then even the probability of 1/N is low enough (negligible) that we are justified in adopting the heuristic rule that "the sun rises every morning". This is induction in action.

      And the same logic can be applied to induction of rules for other observations. Ultimately, we can justify the laws of modern astronomy and physics and come up with a much better estimate, as you have outlined.

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    8. I think the point is that theory and induction of empirical observations complement each other. Theories are not just random speculations, they grow out of observation of multiple observed patterns that have some type of repeatable stability.

      When a theory brings together and unifies our understanding of different types of observed patterns that were not previously connected in our knowledge base, and when the theory is supported by observation and makes new predictions that hold true this is how science progresses.

      Each successful theory lays a foundation for new inductions which might in turn lead to new theories. I don't think it is necessary or possible to establish the absolute foundation at bottom.

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    9. @Seth, @Filippo

      I wish I knew why Filippo deleted his posts out of the blue. Anyway, he seemed to agree to me to a point that induction could be justified in certain circumstances but hadn't quite made the leap to a general justification. At least that was the interpretation I had of what he was saying.

      Seth, nobody doubts that theory and induction of empirical observations are complementary. I don't think that is the point, because it's uncontroversial, as is how science progresses.

      >I don't think it is necessary or possible to establish the absolute foundation at bottom.<

      This is precisely what is at issue. I agree that it isn't necessary, at least for science to proceed, but I disagree that it is impossible, and I would say that it is desirable to do so from a philosophy of science perspective.

      I do concede that it is not possible to establish a foundation if you are only interested in certainties. My argument is that the foundation can be established probablistically. This captures the scientific process quite well, I think. Scientific results or theories are never proven, they are only accepted provisionally until disproven or refined. The scientific process is not required to be infallible, nor should it be. The same is true of induction in general.

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    10. DM, I don't think we are too far apart.

      I don't think a probabilistic foundation is an absolute foundation. I would suggest that even the confidence ranges that accompany well designed statistical inferences include a degree of uncertainty which is why replication becomes important. Regardless of how many replications studies we perform there will always be some uncertainty in the uncertainty we report. At some point we have to agree to accept a level of uncertainty and move forward. So I'm not sure it matters if induction can be philosophically justified at it's foundation. What matters is it's usefulness and how best we can interact inductive methods with theory to make progress. I think this is an open question where philosophy of science could have quite a bit of input. I think there is likely an optimum balance between theory and inductive methods. String theory in my view is an example of too much dominance on the theory side that cannot be supported by observation.

      I know you favor a foundationalist philosophy such as mathematical platonism but it seems to me these positions always involve some foundational assumption that makes for a tautology. So I'm just making an argument that we might be better off looking for ways to characterize optimal relations or interactions rather than absolute foundations.

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    11. Hi Seth,

      Indeed we are probably not too far apart.

      Perhaps there is no absolute foundation, if that's how you define absolute foundations. My view is that induction can be justified as an approach which will usually work, but not that it will always work. Furthermore, I think we can quantify how confident we are in our inductive leaps, so in principle we should be able to work with the uncertainty.

      Now, that said, I'm not sure I see much of a problem with induction. This distinguishes it from ethics, which I view as entirely without objective foundation. My disagreement with Massimo then is that induction is not as arbitrary or without justification as, say, virtue ethics, and the meta-itch is of much greater significance in ethical questions than in philosophy of science.

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    12. Are you sure our foundations for ethics can be characterized as arbitrary in relation to our foundations for induction? I think human beings have some fairly universal modes of suffering, and to a lesser degree of universality flourishing. Everything else being equal, most of us wouldn't want a knife stabbed deep into the bottom of our foot and then slowly twisted to explore any healthy remaining unsevered nerves every 30 seconds. I can say that without carrying out the experiment on 1000 subjects. I think it is fair to say that administering this experiment to an unconsenting subject would be unethical.

      The difference I think is not in the ability to conceive of probabilistic foundations, but in real world complexities of the many levels of competing 'fuzzy' foundations.

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    13. >Are you sure our foundations for ethics can be characterized as arbitrary in relation to our foundations for induction?<

      I think so, because though none of us want to be stabbed through the foot ourselves, that in itself doesn't necessarily persuade me that I ought not stab someone else through the foot.

      But that's an extreme case. The more typical moral agreements are more intractable, and rational people can disagree and be equally in the right.

      A rational person can ignore moral injunctions. Ignoring inductive reasoning, on the other hand, is irrational.

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    14. "I think so, because though none of us want to be stabbed through the foot ourselves, that in itself doesn't necessarily persuade me that I ought not stab someone else through the foot."

      Really? I would think the nearly universal reluctance towards being stabbed combined with any given persons personal experience of pain should be plenty convincing to that person. I am certainly convinced without need for any experimental research.

      That's not to say that experimental research should play no role in how we form our ethics. Often in more arguable ethical dillemmas this clears up a bit of the fuzziness.

      "But that's an extreme case. The more typical moral agreements are more intractable, and rational people can disagree and be equally in the right."

      It's an extreme case because I was giving an example that approaches a foundation for ethics regarding suffering. Anything that approaches a foundation will be at an extreme. I am just not convinced the foundations for ethics are any more fuzzy than those for induction in general.

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    15. >Really? I would think the nearly universal reluctance towards being stabbed combined with any given persons personal experience of pain should be plenty convincing to that person.<

      Did you misunderstand, I wonder?

      Of course I know that I do not want to be stabbed through the foot, and also that others share the same attitude. But how does this extend to convincing me that I ought not stab other people? I know they won't appreciate it, but why should I care what they feel about it if it's what I want to do?

      I think we would all agree that a person who doesn't care about other people is not normal. Perhaps that person is a sociopath or psychopath. My argument is that one can be a psychopath but be rational. One cannot disregard induction and be rational.

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    16. Sure one can be a rational psychopath.

      I think however that rationality cannot be divorced from feelings, emotions, intuitions or perceptions in general. You might argue that these processes are unconsciously informed in an inductive way, but I don't believe it is necessary to perform a conscious process of induction to hold an ethical position in this basic case and to be quite convinced and clear of that position.

      Ideally when faced with tricky ethical dilemmas we will combine our feelings, intuitions and emotions with a conscious logical process informed by the best available theories and empirical findings.

      Logical reasoning is not the only resource we have for constructing our ethical positions. We need to also rely on our various ways of actually experiencing the world to place any value or meaning or weight to the potential positions we might take. Those feelings, emotions etc... are just as real and important to the process. That is why a rational psychopath can potentialy be less ethical then a less rational person with better emotional awareness.

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  36. I'd be curious if there's one aspect of ethics, namely that ethics carries some sort of ought-ness to it, that makes it more important to have some sort of ontological foundation. Practical morality might be all well and good if we can agree on certain premises, but it seems to me that it would easily break down to irresolvable disagreement - especially if we are demanding that people act in a certain way with accordance with that reason. The nature of moral reasoning I would think only becomes necessary when it is a point under contention such that we'd want people to behave differently. And since there are multiple approaches to moral questions, am I to say I can find some practical common ground with a Divine Command Theorist, or they with me?

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  37. It seems that there's no point in using metaphors unless you really take advantage of the vividness with which they are supposed to highlight similarities. In the web metaphor, webs are customarily attached to support, webs are passive traps, webs are fragile. None of these highly salient aspects of webs correctly accentuate any aspect of science! Maybe Quine had "net" floating about in the back of his head? Nets are tough, nets are tools and nets don't have foundations of any sort. The way nets capture capture some fish (and sometimes other things) while other fish and things (like water) escape highlights the way that science also tends to find what it is meant to find. Isn't this kind of extra imagery found in the metaphor why metaphors are used as explanation?

    But in the context of a discussion on foundations the fact that the threads of a net at tightly knotted to each other means even the net is a misleadingly viivid image. In practice, science is neither an edifice, first designed then erected upon foundations. The persistent discovery of foundational gaps in science, math and logic show that. Nor is science a net. The logical disconnects discovered in foundational analysis can't be treated as holes in the net. They are disconnects in the cords that were supposed to make up the net. Without the ties a net is just a spaghetti of ropes and cords.

    Perhaps the best metaphor would be science as a vessel, whose crew is mapping the ocean of reality. The point is the map. The vessel itself might be a single piece of driftwood supporting a lone explorer. Or it might be a haphazard raft with pieces falling off until more or less forced together by desperate shifts and expedients. The vessel might be an antique galley whose movement is limited by weather and the frailties of its crews. Or it might be an imposing clipper ship, with leaks in the hull, with the crew resigned to bailing out the saltwater flooding through the cracks in the ship's "foundations." The fans of *the* scientific method might conceive of science as a sexy cigarette boat. However the vessel is conceived, it can be changed. It is composed of whatever theories, metatheories, concepts, experimental techniques, whatever its designers and repairmen and crew deem useful in the mapping enterprise, correctly, or not.

    The thing is, since the point is the map, changes in the vessel are not the same as changes in the map. The map must be corrigible. Errors are made (always) and corrections have been and will continue to be made. But new continents will not be mapped onto old territory, no matter what leaks are found in the vessel. Which is why foundational problems are still compatible with the validity of scientific knowledge. Might not this metaphor illuminate for us why this is so?

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  38. Massimo,

    You write as if moral skeptics are limited to the argument, "You can't justify your basic moral beliefs". But moral skeptics have more to their arguments than that.

    Of course you can do moral philosophy without questioning your belief in moral truth, just as you can do science without questioning your belief in empirical truth, and you can do theology without questioning your belief in God. Life is short and we have to make judgements about which beliefs are worth questioning. But your analogy with empirical truth carries little water, since there are much better reasons for doubting moral truth than for doubting empirical truth. It's not just some sort of fad that causes many philosophers to doubt moral truth, while few if any doubt empirical truth.

    You attempt to raise moral truth to the same level as empirical truth (and mathematical and logical truth), just by pointing out that none of these can be justified all the way down. But, since that applies to all our beliefs, you are by implication raising all beliefs to the same level, including religious beliefs. Your approach opens the door to religious believers who claim that belief in God is "properly basic".

    You seem to have a traditional epistemology, seeing rational belief as a matter of giving justificatory arguments. In my view we should rather think in terms of subjecting our beliefs to rational skeptical scrutiny. And there's no reason we can't subject the belief in moral truth to such scrutiny.

    The problem of induction is a red herring. It is impossible either to justify or argue against the use of induction (in the broadest sense). All our thinking is rooted in induction, making any attempt to justify induction circular, and any attempt to argue against induction self-defeating. The same is not true for our belief in moral truth.

    Incidentally, Hume himself gave a "solution" to the problem of induction, in the chapter immediately following the one where he described the problem. But many people seem to ignore it. I suspect that's because, to people committed to a traditional epistemology, the only thing that would constitute a solution would be a justification for induction. Since Hume's solution is not a justification, they don't see it as a solution. (To be fair, I don't think Hume does enough to explain what sort of solution it is. I interpret him as moving in the direction of a more modern, naturalized epistemolgy, but he apparently still has some way to go.)

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  39. >I do feel good about my theistic worldview. It has a foundation.<

    A foundation in make believe.

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  40. So Massimo, I'm guessing you're not a big fan of Joshua Greene's attempt to articulate and defend utilitarianism as a meta ethic as outlined in his recent book Moral Tribes?

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    1. Todd,

      Remember that Greene is only arguing for the usefulness of utilitarianism, not for its truth. (At least that's what I've read in a couple of reviews. I haven't read the book itself.)

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  41. Just ran across this article by a philosophy grad student. I found it an interesting approach and maybe others will too: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2014/01/moral-hedging-in-practice-if-this-turns-out-to-be-wrong-am-i-blameworthy.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+3quarksdaily+%283quarksdaily%29

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    1. Most interesting is her use of "pro-choice" terminology to mask the victimization of women and kids. If she really thought abortion was rational, she should label herself "pro-abortion." Her very semantics betrays a reprehensible sort of hedging.

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    2. Hi NiqDan135,

      I really think that's a poor argument. I could just as easily turn your argument around and say that the pro-life crowd is really anti-choice.

      Pro-abortion sounds like the position of someone who actively encourages women to have abortions. Pro-choice is more accurate. The pro-choice viewpoint is that abortion is often a terrible, tragic event in a woman's life, but that she should have the right to make that choice if she feels it is preferable to the alternative.

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  42. Dear Massimo,

    I would like to recommend to you the following two essays, one short and one long, by Ted Trainer on ethical subjectivism. To my mind, it is one of the clearest pieces I have read on metaethics. I think it also shows that metaethics IS very important for normative morality. Or at least for making sense of the moral enterprise. I have only just discovered your (fantastic) website, but can see you probably more or less agree with the position Trainer argues. But, again, Trainer puts the case for subjectivism very clearly and, in a way that challenges most even philosophically trained ethicists. I would like to here your opinion on it sometime.
    Short article: https://socialsciences.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/TNOM_sum.html

    Long article/book: https://socialsciences.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/D69.THE-NATURE-OF-MORALITY.html

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  43. "we have no logical justification for pretty much any of our empirical knowledge, all scientific knowledge included! Oops."

    Thank you for saying this.

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