Sunday, February 06, 2005

Empiricism

I've been rather swamped with an extended out of town trip this week and an overabundance of work, but I give to you this essay I recently penned for a class in place of some writing originally intended for this blog:

The scientific community and even the world at large depends on empirically verifiable scientific theories to explain the world around us. These theories use the available facts of the world around us to create theories on how those facts interact. Likewise, the logical positivist movement has sought to apply the same scientific methods in order to find our ethical theory. Unfortunately, it is impossible to attempt to create an ethical theory using a psudo-scientific method, as an ethical theory cannot satisfy the requirements of a sound scientific theory. Furthermore, our ethics must be empirically verifiable, and while we might assume this there is no hope left for creating ethical theory, there is still some hope for formulating a cogent ethical structure.
The scientific method is the standardized process by which individuals can glean information and formulate theories about the physical world around them. When taught in grade schools it has a variety of separate steps, but for the sake of simplicity it is easy enough to condense them into three separate areas. First, a scientist observes an unexplained phenomenon and creates a hypothesis on why it occurs in the way it does. Next, the scientist constructs a method by which to test his theory, and then implements this test. Finally the scientist analyzes his data and determines whether his initial hypothesis was correct or incorrect, and if the latter, he formulates a new conclusion. The hypothesis on how the elements of the experiment interact becomes theory, while the individual pieces of information, the empirical, perceptual elements that the theory pieces together, are called facts.
Theories stand until they are disproved by contradictory evidence or until a better theory comes along. One of the defining qualities of the scientific method is that it is repeatable by any scientist, and that, hypothetically, those other scientists would discover the same results. Vice versa, a valid scientific theory must have the potential to be disproven; that is, it is conceptually possible for an experiment to be conducted that would yield disproving information, however unlikely it might be.
Additionally, some theories are clearly better than others. Those theories that the scientific community calls better have both the power to explain varieties of behaviors of phenomenon with a single principle as well as being simplistic in their formulation. This is to say that a theory that uses one, simple, idea to explain a variety of effects is far superior to a convoluted theory of complicated causes that only explains one isolated incident.
Furthermore, a theory is useless to us unless we are able to use it to predict future outcomes. A good scientific theory must be able to analyze a set of data and suggest the most possible outcome, otherwise we have no use for the theory. We can easily imagine a theory which tells us nothing or predicts nothing; it isn’t much of a theory at all, but simply a descriptive account of the facts.
These four things then, falsifiability, simplicity, explanatory power, and predictory power, are what constitute a good scientific theory. A theory that lacks any of these four can either not be called a valid theory, or it cannot be called a good theory. Furthermore, at least two of these, that is, predictory power and falsifiability, are determined by the proper application of the scientific method. This is well and good for science, but suppose we apply this system to ethics. It does not seem too far fetched; Louis Pojman’s collection of essays on ethics is even called Ethical Theory.
First, it is simple enough to agree that ethical theories are capable of both explaining a variety of phenomena and are able to explain them with a single principle. One simple guiding principle can explain an entire system of morality. In the case of love, for instance, with a guiding mandate to “love everybody,” we can see that this simple phrase will explain why people donate large sums of money to bums, work for charitable organizations, and act non-violently. At least two of the four requirements for a sound theory apply here.
Can a theory like this, though, also predict outcomes? Presumably if we believe we ought to do something, we will, in fact, do it. This, though, is not always the case. Many people claim to hold something as immoral and the precede to do it. People claim all the time what they ought not to do, and then end up doing exactly the opposite. While these people might simply be expressing these ethical propositions without actually believing what they say, it still stands that the ethical theories that people appear to have do no always show a clear prediction of what they will do. Ethical theories do not necessarily predict outcomes.
Another problem arises when we attempt to show an ethical theory’s falsifiability. The problem arises in the very application of the scientific method in the first place. In the instance of gravity, for instance, we could imagine an experiment being conducted whereby a dropped object doesn’t fall to the ground under normal circumstances. The fact that this experiment has not happened is proof of the theory of gravity’s factuality, but it is also proof that it is potentially possible to prove gravity to be a false theory; the theory of gravity is falsifiable. Our ethical theories, though, do not have the luxury of something so definite and physical as a dropped object; we have no Geiger counter of goodness or a Richter scale of rightness, measuring the rise of evil is not so simple as measuring the rise of tide water. Because there are no sensually perceptible empirical moral facts to disprove -or prove- an ethical theory, ethical theory is non-falsifiabile, which means that, at least in terms of science, ethical theory is not a theory at all.
If an otherwise reputable scientist were to put forth a theory that we could not verify and that did not make any predictions, that scientist would not have their theory taken as truth. The whole reason why our medical journals are peer-reviewed is in order to verify the existence of all four criteria for a sound scientific theory. If we are to peer-review essays on ethics in the same way we peer-review medical or scientific journals, then every ethical theory would certainly fail review.
Certainly, ethical theory is not scientific in its use of the term ‘theory.’ We might conclude, therefore, that ethics should not determined by the methods we normally apply to science. This conclusion, though, would be faulty, if for no other reason than the question that it begs. If we cannot use science to determine ethics, what should we use? Is there any way to determine information outside of science?
Questions of metaphysics aside, it is clear that the things we observe in our universe have effects, and vice versa that unobservable effects have no observable causes. Even less tangible phenomena like psychological trends have observable causes and effects. For this reason all things must be rooted in some sort of science, because those things that are unobservable have no effects on us. Only those things which we can observe have bearing on our lives.
Our ethics must be based on some sort of empirical foundation if they are to have bearing on our lives. This is exceedingly hard to do, given the lack of empirical evidence for any sort of ethical claim. Despite the difficulties, though, I believe there are some irreducible primaries on which to found our ethics; in particular, the existence of the self is one very good place on which to found an ethical “theory.”
All in all, ethical theory really cannot be called theory at all, as it fails two of the four criteria of a good scientific theory. Additionally, our morals must be founded in some sort of empirically verifiable evidence, as only those things that are observable have effect on our lives. These might seem like insurmountable barriers in formulating a system of ethics, but I have hope that there are still some very viable options.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that you managed to write that paper without mentioning the is-ought gap. I thought of it every time that you spoke of falsifiability and empirical testing.

1:06 AM  
Blogger RCowan said...

Philosophy is so much easier when you avoid the really hard questions, isn't it?

10:35 PM  
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4:44 PM  

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