Monthly Archives: August 2018

issues in the philosophy of social science

Here is the outline of a course I’d like to take–or possibly design and teach some day:

  1. What is the social world? Is it, for example, a bunch of human individuals who interact? Perhaps not, since individuals’ identities and values emerge from social processes, while institutions also have intentions and agency. Do sex and/or gender (for instance) actually exist? Do cultures exist, or are they simplified labels that we impose on heterogeneous phenomena?
  2. Does it matter who studies the social world? On one hand, we might think that what we believe about society is just a function of who studies it. On the other hand, we might assume that social phenomena can be objectively known using procedures that are independent of who uses them. The truth probably lies in between. So how does the identity of the researcher influence the results of social science, and, more generally, how does power relate to truth?
  3. Facts and values: Are they distinct? How do they relate? Should we think of values as biases that may interfere with objectivity, or can they be valid as opposed to invalid? Should social science have values?
  4. What do various methods of social science assume about epistemology? For example, what must we believe about our ability to know in order to run a randomized controlled experiment, develop a game-theoretical model, survey a population and calculate distributions, or interpret a Balinese cockfight?
  5. What is and ought to be the role of social science in society? Should it be influential? When and how? Is everyone a social scientist, or does that phrase name a distinct group of experts or specialists? Should the goal of changing the world affect the research agendas and methods of social science? Who should govern (i.e., fund, regulate, organize) social science and how?

new special issue of The Good Society on reintegrating facts, values, and strategies (open access)

Newly published–and free without a subscription through November — is The Good Society‘s Special Issue on Reintegrating Facts, Values, Strategies, vol. 26, no. 2-3 (2017). Guest edited by me.

Table of Contents

my self, your self, ourselves

Thesis: I have a vocabulary for describing my own behavior that’s full of words about motives, goals, and principles. “Why did I raise my hand? Because I wanted to answer your question. Why did I give that answer? Because I knew it was the truth and I was obliged to say it.” This is a valid way of thinking, because each claim is subject to being tested and can be refuted. (Maybe I raised my hand to show off, or because I misheard you, or to reach for a light switch.) It’s morally important that I think this way about myself, because it reminds me that I am responsible for my actions and must strive to apply the best principles. It’s also morally important that I envision you in the same terms. That is necessary for recognizing your dignity and equality, and it reminds me that I should help you to make your own choices wisely. I should strive to remove obstacles and enhance your freedom.

Antithesis: We have a vocabulary for describing any action in nature that’s all about causes and effects. “Why did he raise his hand? Because an electrical signal traveled along a nerve to a muscle. Why did that signal happen? Because a synapse fired in his brain.” This is the only scientific way to think about life, because science is defined as a third-person account of nature that sets aside the subjective perspective. It’s morally valuable to think this way about other people because then we realize that they are caught in a web of causality and cannot escape suffering; it makes us compassionate. And it’s important that I apply this way of thinking to my own case, viewing my own first-person talk of goals and principles as kind of myth. Then I can escape an overweening attachment to myself that makes me selfish, self-important, and fearful.

Synthesis: There are two ways of thinking about sentient action, the first-person and the third-person mode, and each has its own norms of validity and tests of truth. We are nowhere near being able to make these two perspectives cohere, if we ever will. But we must treat one another right. We’re in this together, and we’re all we’ve got. That requires holding several ideas in our minds at once. 1) I am responsible for what I do and should strive to do right by you. But 2) The condition of my self is of no great consequence to the world and is fundamentally a matter of luck. 3) You face choices and can strive to do right, and I ought to help you. But 4) The condition of your self is a matter of luck; often you will be a in a state of unease or even suffering; and I have compassion for you.

See also: Hegel and the Buddhathree truths and a question about happiness; and on philosophy as a way of life.

how philosophy is supposed to work

(Posted during the Social Ontology 2018 Conference, hosted at Tufts) We live in a positivist culture in which many smart people hold fairly simple views of science and believe that all rigorous thought is scientific. Their objection to highly abstract conceptual questions and to questions of value (moral, political, or aesthetic) is that these matters cannot be scientific; hence progress is impossible. Endless debate must result from the brute fact that we hold different opinions.

But we must figure out what to value and what to believe about conceptual issues. Given our cognitive and moral limitations as individuals, our best way to think about such matters is with other people–learning from their perspectives and testing our beliefs with them. Words are not our only tools for thinking together–mathematical notations, diagrams, images, music, and bodily movements also work–but words are awfully helpful and usually play a role even when we make heavy use of the alternatives.

Therefore, human beings talk about conceptual and normative matters. We always do, everywhere and in every era. But a literal conversation has drawbacks. Since an actual, oral dialogue must involve a small number of people, the cognitive resources are limited. It lasts for a finite amount of time–too brief to address all the relevant questions and issues. And it proceeds in a linear fashion, with one comment or question occupying attention at any given moment, followed by the next one. Although people may make discursive moves like saying, “Let’s go back to your earlier point P, because I disagree with it,” the participants can barely explore the whole network of potentially connected ideas. A conversation is one walk through one part of the network.

A discipline like philosophy is an effort to improve the conversation by institutionalizing it. Many people can participate in a discussion that is organized in the form of journals, books, symposia, and reviews. Participants publish their claims and reasons, leaving them on the record to be picked up by others. They take time to make each point carefully, offering reasons and considering objections. If someone claims P, other people are supposed to read and cite that claim before they say P or not-P. If you criticize P, then other people who begin by believing P are supposed to read and consider your objection to P before they use it as a premise in their arguments. The debate still continues permanently, but it is supposed to become increasingly organized and refined in a process that is just as cumulative as a “normal science” is. Moreover, the strictly philosophical debate is not insulated from other intellectual work but is constantly informed by developments in the sciences, humanistic thought, and actual events in the world.

This is all idealized. I am perfectly aware that not everyone can participate in a professional discipline’s discussion; in fact, the vast majority of human beings are excluded, for a whole range of reasons. Nor would everyone want to join even if that were easy for them. Those who participate act imperfectly, showing too much deference to certain authorities, demonstrating group-think, etc. And ethics (in particular) still suffers from myopia about cultural diversity and empirical data that Owen Flanagan well describes in his new book, The Geography of Morals: Varieties of Moral Possibility.

Still the ideal has significance as a heuristic. It draws our attention to Robert Merton’s four CUDOS norms, which he developed for science (per Wikipedia):

  • Communalism all scientists should have equal access to scientific goods (intellectual property) and there should be a sense of common ownership in order to promote collective collaboration, secrecy is the opposite of this norm.
  • Universalism all scientists can contribute to science regardless of race, nationality, culture, or gender.
  • Disinterestedness according to which scientists are supposed to act for the benefit of a common scientific enterprise, rather than for personal gain.
  • Organized Skepticism Skepticism means that scientific claims must be exposed to critical scrutiny before being accepted.

These norms also apply to philosophy, and we can add more values, such as 1) the norm of citing and addressing previous contributions to the same discussion; 2) the principle that academic discussions should ultimately (but not always directly) benefit public life; 3) the value of being permeable and connected to other discussions in other fields; and 4) an affirmative effort to incorporate people and perspectives that have hitherto been marginalized.

See also: is all truth scientific truth?does naturalism make room for the humanities?why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics, and adding democracy to Robert Merton’s CUDOS norms for science.

love what you see: Kogonada’s Columbus (2017)

Kogonada’s Columbus (2017) is beautifully filmed in Columbus, IN, a small city stocked with distinguished modernist architecture. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) had a rough adolescence, but in the midst of that turmoil, she started relishing one particular modernist structure in an ugly strip mall. (I think it is Deborah Berke’s First Financial Bank, below.) She begins to explore the history of modernist architecture and discovers a possible exit from her current life into a world of art and ideas. 

A fine modernist building is an exquisitely planned abstract design composed of a limited number of elements. So is Columbus. The patterns are “subtle” (which is the effect that Casey “goes for” when she cooks for her mom), but also pervasive. For example, Jin (John Cho) and his father are Korean or Korean-American men who form parallel friendships with Midwestern women. Jin and Haley have difficult relationships with parents of the same sex. Near the beginning, Eleanor (Parker Posey) walks across Eero Saarinen’s Miller House toward Jae Yong Lee. Near the end, Casey walks across the Miller House toward Jin. Just like Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church, as Casey describes it, the whole film is asymmetrical yet carefully balanced.

Jin’s father left a line-drawing in a notepad, and Jin tries to identify its subject. It could be Mill Race Park Tower by Stanley Saitowitz. Or it might represent negative space, such as the gap in the brick facade of Columbus City Hall by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Jin’s father, in his coma, is negative space, and the drawing he left probably does depict the gap in City Hall. But Casey doesn’t like that building, ranking it “low teens, high twenties” on her list of Columbus’ architectural monuments. She strives to bridge gaps–much like James Stewart Polshek’s Mental Health Center, which is built across Haw Creek, with the water flowing beneath for the benefit of the patients.

The film is about appreciating where you are and what you have, taking time to observe. Gabriel (Rory Culkin) even delivers an amusing speech about attention spans, ostensibly summarizing the views of a famous–but absent–critic. Everyone wants Casey to get out of Columbus and escape from her family life, but her moral excellence lies in her genuine love for both. This is not a story about a teenager who needs to break away from a small city in Indiana, but about a person who has learned to see and to love what she sees. Columbus is a lesson in both.