Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

Four Old Rants for the New Year

Sorry, they’re just bugging me:

A brief defence of relativism

Relativism is coming in for a lot of bad press right now. Liberals who might traditionally have been sympathetic to it are blaming it for the decline of science (as if this were not just a return to the status quo of thousands of years of human history after a blip of less than fifty years, and as if the hubris and mendacity of the scientific establishment were not a better explanation) while those on the right blame moral relativism (without asking what it is or whether it applies) for the continual but seemingly interminable “decline” in standards.

As a technical project in logic or ethics, relativism is a sticky wicket, but the sentiment of the relativist is easy to defend: relativism is an objection to a certain kind of sloppy thinking. General statements are true only if we import with them a set of what we might call ceteris paribus assumptions. Heat doesn’t move from a cooler to a hotter body; except that it does, if we build a mechanism to so move it (like a refrigerator). Of course when we say “heat doesn’t move from a cooler to a hotter body” we’re assuming that our listener understands we mean things like “without the aid of a mechanism”. We say that heat doesn’t move from a cooler to hotter body all other  things being equal (ceteris paribus).

Sloppy thinking occurs when we become so used to omitting these assumptions that we forget they apply, and then think that our general statement obtains in situations where the assumptions do not. Creationists often make use of the argument that entropy increases (and complexity decreases) to argue that evolved life could not arise by chance; they forget that the general truth “entropy increases” is true for closed systems, which the earth is not.

While the technical project of relativism makes various metaphysical and ontological commitments, depending on the sort of relativist one wishes to be, I think the motivation (particularly where relativism grows from postmodern approaches) is really to insist that these assumptions have to be articulated and tested. The scandal of relativism is that articulating the assumptions is often much harder than we expect and yields rather unpalatable results.
Asking silly questions

There’s an experiment being reported around the net at the moment which purports to show a systematic failure in human reasoning. It goes like this: we tell the subject that Harry liked to take part in school plays and often goes to classical concerts, then we ask, is Harry more likely to be an accountant or an actor? The suckers subjects say “actor” and the experimenters sit back with a smug grin and say “no, because there are far, far more accountants than actors, so anybody is more likely to be an accountant than an actor.”

But that isn’t the question that was asked. Again, there is a hidden ceteris paribus here. All other things being equal, Harry is prima facie as likely to be an actor as an accountant, so if we assume he has some control over his career, and quantify over possible worlds, it’s more likely he’s an actor than an accountant.

If you’re sceptical about this, consider the following:

  1. Suppose the question were posed, “Given that there are five times as many accountants as actors, is Harry more likely to be an accountant or an actor?” Would subjects still have said “actor”?
  2. If you were posed a maths problem of the form “A train leaves Manchester heading to London at 50mph…” would it be legitimate in your answer to point out that trains on that line are usually subject to heavy delays? Or would that be a violation of the hidden ceteris paribus that comes with this sort of question?

Agnosticism and Scientific Realism

Ontological economy is a methodological principle of scientific investigation, not a requirement for rational thinking. The propensity of scientists to confuse the two is astonishing; in general, the assumption that scientific method – often poorly understood – is a normative paradigm for rationality is a pernicious error far too readily accepted by scientists and non-scientists alike.

Broadly, ontological economy says we don’t accept the existence of entities or classes of entities unless they are required by some theory explaining our observations of the world. It is Occam’s razor in a dress suit, and a jolly useful principle it is too. If you’re trying to design experiments to falsify a theory, the fewer things you have to control for, the better. Multiplying entities means multiplying controls or (worse) multiplying explanations for your results.

Things may exist and remain unobserved, however; and our theories may account for some observations in quite the wrong way. This is part of the excitement of science – we uncover new phenomena and find our assumptions about the familiar challenged. Let’s pretend it’s 1939, and ask ourselves: are there any transuranic elements? Perhaps, perhaps not; none of our theories require that they exist. So what should our attitude towards them be?

It seems to me that the right attitude – both scientifically and rationally – is to defer a judgement until more evidence is available. To take, as it were, an agnostic attitude. When we design our experiments, and interpret our results, we do not make reference to transuranic elements until there is a need to do so; but we don’t, in virtue of this methodological convenience, outright deny their existence. We are, in a sense, humble enough to admit that whatever is, is, and that even our best theories may one day be subject to revision, while at the same time we are smart enough not to be fooled into thinking that because something might be, we have good reason to invoke it in our explanations.

This is, of course, the dividing line between atheism and agnosticism. I am agnostic, in the sense that I lack enough evidence to decide on the existence of god-like entities one way or another (although I am atheist in respect of the god of Judaism). As an agnostic, I won’t deny the existence of gods any more than I will deny the existence of the flying spaghetti monster or a teapot orbiting the earth (in so far as any of these three are conceptually coherent). This does not commit me to invoking gods, monsters or teapots in my explanations of my experience, and certainly in my attempts to provide systematic accounts for the operation of the mind, I have never been tempted to do so. But my commitment, from the point of view of scientific methodology, to resist invoking these entities does not entail any commitment, from the point of view of rationality, to denying their existence entirely.

I’m happy that Richard Dawkins is an atheist and I am happy that he has invested so much energy in providing coherent and accessible critiques of religion. I reject, however, his conflation of scientific methodology with rationality, and his rejection of agnosticism as irrational. There are lots of good reasons for rejecting agnosticism in favour of atheism, but irrationality isn’t one of them.
Political Correctness Unjustly Accused

People who should know better keep bashing political correctness, generally without really understanding what it is.

I saw a “celeb” on TV last week criticising the fashion sense of another “celeb”. She said something like, “with political correctness and all, we can’t say she’s just a huge blimp wearing a tent.”

There are two problems with this sentence. The first is that it simultaneously says P while claiming that saying P is prohibited. The second is that it attributes the alleged, and evidently entirely imaginary, prohibition to political correctness. It isn’t political correctness that stops people describing a woman as a “blimp wearing a tent,” of course; it is what we outside the media call “common decency”.

A similar set of problems crops up in conversations about immigration. Otherwise quite logical people make claims of the form “Political correctness prevents me from saying P” where P is something like “there should be less immigration”.

The root of the prohibition problem is a feeling people have that they are being censored where in fact such censorship isn’t particularly extreme (but is not, on the other hand entirely absent). In the blimp / tent case, the censor is just good manners, but in the immigration case it’s a kind of liberal orthodoxy; in neither case is it political correctness (gone mad or otherwise). Orthodoxies are usually good to challenge and if people feel they cannot ask legitimate questions about immigration then they should work to throw off whatever shackles prevent them from doing so.

Political correctness has quite a different agenda. It is perfectly pc to ask, “what immigration policies will give the best chance of economic prosperity for the current and future UK population?” although the question might be unpalatable to certain temperaments (mine included, as it happens) and defy certain orthodoxies about what may or may not be asked (if you do not believe in such orthodoxies, consider in how many forums you could ask whether paedophilia is good for children). What it is not pc to ask is how many foreigners we should let into our country. This is not because of the substance of the question, but rather because the language used – foreigners, our country – establishes a value-laden opposition which prejudices the answer to the question and perpetuates an imbalance of power.

Historically, pc came alongside a fairly radical power-grab by a range of minority groups which established new orthodoxies in intellectual debate. The new orthodoxies probably represent a more egalitarian position than those they displaced, but they are orthodoxies nonetheless and deserve to be challenged. But pc itself – the process of increasing consciousness of the fact that the way we use language reinforces existing power relationships – remains a useful tool and shouldn’t be made to carry the can for perceived imbalances of power.

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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