Wednesday, January 2, 2008

TMP 7: UPB and Validity

[Part of The Molyneux Project; read the main critique here]

[I retract a lot of what I say in this post, because it's nitpicky and doesn't really accomplish anything, and because it's unfair of me to insist on the kind of specificity that I complain about here. Below, I identify the areas of the post which I think are still worth reading if you're trying to think about this particular section of the book. In the next section, a lot of the confusion is resolved, and this is discussed in the next post. If I were you, I'd skip this installment altogether.]

I'm having even more trouble with this section than the last. This time I think the culprit is Stefan's use of several words in ways that don't match their normal definitions without defining them in an easily understandable way (that is, easily understandable to me, of course!).

Stefan first tries to establish that morality is a "valid concept." But it's odd that he would use the word "valid," because the term "validity" generally applies to arguments, and morality doesn't seem to be an argument. For an argument to be valid, it must be impossible that the conclusion be false if all of the premises are true. But since a concept can not be "true" or "false," and doesn't include a movement from premises to a conclusion, it's clear that a concept can't be valid; Stefan seems to be setting himself up for a category error.

Stranger still is Stefan's choice of the word "valid" instead of "sound." An argument is valid if it would be impossible for the conclusion to be false provided the premises are true, but this doesn't mean that the conclusion is true; a valid argument with false premises can still have a false conclusion. For example, take the argument, "I am a cat, therefore I am a cat." This is unquestionably a valid argument; the conclusion that I am a cat directly follows from the premise that I am a cat. But I am not a cat. A sound argument, in contrast, is a valid argument with true premises. So "I am a cat, therefore I am a cat" is valid, but not sound. If I were going to commit a category error by calling a concept either "valid" or "sound," I'd choose "sound" because at least this would be suggestive of the objective "truth" of the concept (even though concepts can't be true). Hardy har.

[What follows, I think, is significant in the context of this section, but not really that important.]

Stefan's own attempt to define "validity" only adds more confusion. On page 38, he writes, "A rule can be valid if it exists empirically, like gravity, or because it is true, like the equation 2+2=4." But while this might sound good on the surface, it's very difficult to say what Stefan means by either of these possibilities.

First, the phrase "exists empirically" doesn't make sense. The word "empirical" refers to experience, not metaphysical existence. And not only is the mind-independent existence of gravity never directly perceived (at least not according to most metaphysical theories), but we don't even seem to experience gravity directly, where we seem to directly experience a chair or a back rub. What we experience is a regularity in our observations which seems to be the explainable by reference to an actual relationship between masses. But since we never experience the relationship itself, it's impossible to say that our conception of gravity represents knowledge of its true nature. Stefan himself brought up the example of Einsteinian vs. Newtonian physics earlier in the book; did the Newtonian conception of gravity not "empirically exist," given its subsequent replacement by the Einsteinian conception? And now that we accept Einstein's account of gravity, have we know achieved knowledge of gravity as it "empirically exists"? If the phrase means anything at all, it seems like it would refer to the idea that we can infer the existence of a rule from repeated observations of phenomena which are consistent with the rule, so long as we never experience any phenomena which falsify the rule. To put it another way, we might say a rule can be "valid" if it is a testable hypothesis which conforms to all of our observations.

I'm not sure if this is really what Stefan means. Given his citation of Bacon, it seems like Stefan wants to say that we can know a hypothesis to be true if it is testable and conforms to all of our observations. But this contradicts the position of pretty much every modern philosophical paradigm that I'm aware of, and so Stefan would have to provide a very impressive argument to move beyond the definition I proposed above if I were going to accept that we can know the nature of something like gravity by observing what we take to be its instantiation.

[I don't really like the next two paragraphs, as they're not well written at all, and are mostly nitpicky]

Moving on to the second way for a rule to be valid, Stefan cites the example of "2+2=4" to show that a rule is "true." But while "2+2=4" is true, it's not a rule, or even a concept; it's a statement. And while statements can be "true," rules and concepts can't be. "You must always wear your seatbelt," taken as a moral imperative and not as a statement of fact, is not true or false in a really objective sense. Neither is "You must not swear around grandma" or "You mustn't leave the table until you eat your veggies." Perhaps Stefan is saying that morality is composed of statements, like "It is morally wrong to neglect to wear your seatbelt," rather than imperatives. If this were the case, then it's pretty clear what Stefan would intend when he says that moral rules are "valid" if they're true. He would mean that if "It is morally wrong to swear around grandma" were true, then the moral imperative, "You must not swear around grandma" seems like an uncontroversial transformation.

We do need to ask whether it makes sense for Stefan to be saying that morality is composed of statements, given the other things he's said. Earlier we talked about moral rules as being inferred from observations. But it's not clear how we would observe a moral rule. On page 39, Stefan writes, "...it cannot be said that moral rules exist in material reality, and neither are they automatically obeyed like the laws of physics..." This issue is no more easily resolved by saying that morality is composed of statements, because we would then need to determine some way of observing the truth or falsehood of the statements. But it's clear that the view of morality as being composed of statements is not any more problematic when it comes to empirical verification. So morality as statements it is.

[What follows, I think, is also somewhat worthwhile.]

I still want to clarify one thing before moving on. Stefan seems to be saying that moral statements can be considered "valid" if they can either be inferred from experience, or are "true," in the way that mathematical equations are true. It seems like the role of the mathematical equation is to allow for the possibility of necessary truth which can be recognized a priori. So then, what does "valid" mean? It seems to mean nothing more than "true." A moral statement can be declared "true" if it is inferred from experience, or if it is necessarily true (though moral statements inferred from experience could still end up being false, as pointed out earlier).

I think that makes sense. But now I have to face the difficult question of why Stefan would have said something so simple in such a complicated manner. I can't help but suspect that I've just been baselessly putting words in his mouth. The conclusion I just reached looks almost nothing like Stefan's actual statement, but I'm going to accept it anyway for two reasons. The first is that I'm not sure that what Stefan said actually makes any sense at all. In that case, I'd much rather use this framework because at least it's workable, and adequately covers the sort of "scientific method" I think he's aiming for. The second reason is that if this interpretation is wrong, then I have no idea what Stefan means. If I don't use this framework, I'll have nothing to work with. If I'm wrong, and someone wants to explain to me what Stefan actually meant, that would be very helpful. But hopefully this is a fair interpretation, and I can move on.

1 comment:

Smack said...

"Valid", "Sound", "True", "Empirical", yes I do think from my own experience (outside the book though. I've not read that yet) that Stef may be quite too casual with the terms when a more strict use with clear definitions would add to and strengthen what he has to say.

I enjoyed your differentiations, especially between "valid" and "sound" here, and between "empirical" and the nature of observed relationships (gravity). I think it could be important.

Nonetheless, to me, Joe Layman, it does seem in this post that these conflations and mis-appropriations of terms are only accidental things that should be refined; That with more consistency the argument will crystalize, not evaporate. We shall see. In either case such refinements of terms that you have made so far do seem to make things more clear, at the very least terminologically.

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