Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A brief note on Fact/Value dichotomies

You'll know I'm a fan of Tim Johnson's Magic, Maths and Money. His most recent post is Scientific Facts and Democratic Values. The comment thread is worth reading. The EP (experimental physicist) that Tim mentions in the post has recently added his thoughts, and identified himself as Philip Moriarty.

As I say in my own comment on the post, I'm exploring these fact/value issues in psychoanalysis at the moment through my reading of Albert Tauber's book Freud - the Reluctant Philosopher. I've barely got beyond the first chapter so I'm not going to say too much on Tauber here, but there are a couple of notes I wanted to make.

Tim thinks that the definition of science should be broad enough so that it can incorporate claims from the social as well as the natural world. He backs up this idea with the following striking statement;
.".. I believe it is equally justified to claim the "E=mc2" [is right] and that "Raping three year olds is wrong" and I need to have a framework that acknowledges the equivalence of these claims. The reason I use an extreme example is that the question of raping children is clearly predominantly a moral question, so what I am claiming is that my intellectual framework needs to be equally robust in supporting "facts" as "values".
In his comment Philip says that Tim is over-reaching here and that his 'attempt to equate universal physical laws with the idea of a universal moral framework makes no sense at all'. He agrees with an earlier commenter - Kaleberg - who claims that 'there have been, and quite likely still are, societies where raping toddlers is seen as perfectly acceptable.' In other words, moral values are inherently relative, whereas scientific facts are not.

I'm not so sure about Kaleberg's claim from both a practical and a philosophical position.

First, my practical objection. Freud's claim was that society itself - i.e. the very idea of society - was based upon some form of sexual repression. Indeed, some form of prohibition on incest is the closest thing anthropologists have to a 'universal social law' [the closest thing to 'a truth' given certain error bars  :o) ]. Marriage too, is a pretty widespread phenomenon both geographically and historically. So much so that even today, most of the world take some form of monogamous marriage to be a 'natural' state. To identify a variance in sexual norms over time and space does not falsify the claim that our social being is fundamentally built on sexual prohibition - or put another way, it doesn't disprove the idea of a universal moral framework.

Secondly, my philosophical objection. I regard the idea that 'morality is inherently relative' as an axiom, rather than a truth. Its a powerful axiom, for sure. And perhaps a very useful one that helps guard against all sorts of horrors. But it is a truth before the fact, not after it. My own take it - which comes primarily from considering the relationship between value and money - is that of value monism; that there is one value that we perceive as manifest in different forms. It's an axiom too, but one that works better for my experience of life and my understanding of money. I should add that I see a equivalence between the terms 'value and moral'. There's a good quote here from David Graeber that explores the notion of value as its used in an anthropological sense and, for me at least, hints at a kind of value monism.

'Value monism' is not a popular philosophical position. But I'm always struck how if one can frame some of the ideas it encompasses - of universality, the absolute, the 'good' - in an appropriate term, it is readily accepted. One such term is 'humanism'. Its the term Tauber uses about Freud to describe a sort of moral dynamic that he identifies in Freud's work. We're all humanists, aren't we?

I think much of what Tim has been doing in his work generally is to try to uncover how humanism and science relate to one another. The focus on value and fact in Tim's latest post is, in this sense, a specification of that wider humanism/science relation.

The following quote from Tauber contains a couple of ideas that I think are very relevant both to the 'micro' fact/value debate and to the 'macro' humanism/science relation.
Freud's 'physics envy' belied his scientific aspirations, for he could not overcome the insurmountable normative structure of his enterprise. Scientific theories generally fall into two camps: Some are simply descriptive with no judgments about optimal or suboptimal states.  Such theories, which characterize the natural sciences, for example, Newtonian mechanics or general relativity, are value-neutral (i.e., relative to human or subjective values) and thus non-normative. Of course, they are not value-free, but rather judged and governed by their own hierarchy of values, for example, objective, universal, coherent, parsimonious, 'aesthetically elegant,' or simple. Older kinds of theories embed different social or personal values in their descriptive structure that are necessarily derived from human experience, and, accordingly account for conditions on a normative spectrum of values. Physics is not evaluative in this way, because there is no value judgement on whether an eclipse of the moon, itself, is good or bad, better or worse (at least not in Western secular society). Needless to say, the effects on human life of such phenomena are valued, but the phenomena themselves, at least in their descriptions, are neutral and only elicit a normative judgement relative to how that phenomena or theory affects well being.

Albert Tauber Freud - The Reluctant Philosopher (2010) p.33
The key terms then, are value-neutral and value-free.

Science has the goal of value-neutrality, in the sense that it seeks to neutralize certain values in experiments so that it can measure and therefore confirm the effects of certain causes. This is perhaps why facts - such as E=mc2 - are presented as value-free, because for most practical purposes they are indeed free of value. Strictly speaking though, they should properly be regarded as value-neutral, and not value-free.

Now, Freud (if he wasn't such a materialist physics-envy type concerned with the status of psychoanalysis as science) could have a field-day with the associations between castration and neutralizing. All I want to do though, in terms of psychoanalysis, is, in just a few sentences, explore a theme that this distinction between value-neutral and value-free suggests.

I came to Tim's website because of its title. When I read that he was a fan of the work of Joel Kaye, I knew Tim's work would be of real interest to me. Tim's (and Joel's) exploration of the moral framework within which proto-science (or natural philosophy) developed and that framework's relation to money is very important. But there is always a problem with these historical stories about the relation between money and thought. Simply put, its difficult to know when to start. Broadly, Joel Kaye's idea was that the monetization of society, and the reaction of scholars to it, was the driving force behind the advances which led ultimately to Newton. The difficulty is that Richard Seaford in his brilliant Money and the Early Greek Mind tells pretty much the same story, only set in a different time and with different characters.

The theme then, that I think links these stories about thought and money, is repression (we could get technical and talk about it being sublimation, but let's not). This is important to understand in respect of the issue of value-neutral vs value-free. For me, Tim's work can be read as story about how values in finance have been repressed (literally neutralized). His recent efforts seem to focus on the idea that we need to bring those values back to consciousness.


A last couple of points:


I said in my comment that 'Facts are the currency of science'. I don't mean this as analogy. I think they really are. Value, Money and currency between them seem to traverse the boundaries between subject and object, and transcend the distinctions we create - or that exist - between the real and the abstract. It may help here to repeat one of my axioms;

  • Money is an aspect of reality that mediates Value and enumerates certain relations through currency.

What links currency and facts then, is their relation to Money and Value.

I conceptualize Money a 'bifurcating force' which has a unique (and primary) relationship to a 'value singularity'. I consider the truth of a fact and the value of a coin as related in a fundamental way. 


This line from Tim's post triggered a memory; 
In response, the EP raised a cup as if to drop it and the claim was made that it will accelerate at 9.81.. m/s2 and this was a fact, known within definite errors. 
I had a wonderful Spanish PHD (or post?) guy take our philosophy of science seminars at the LSE. His schtick (and I think possibly his thesis proper) was that gravity doesn't exist. It would really annoy some of my fellow students, but I loved it.  To get across the idea he'd drop a pen onto the desk and ask 'what just happened?' The annoyed students would explain, with varying degrees of detail the effect of gravity on a given mass etc. Then he'd say, 'prove to me that the whole world didn't just move toward the pen.'
How we come to know, what we think we know, is an important question that should be asked repeatedly - not so it becomes like a debilitating neurosis - but enough that it reminds us of the value of facts.

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