The Foundations and Scope of the Argument from Inductive Risk: An Exchange with Joyce Havstad

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Introductory note: One of the most exciting parts of my work over the last couple of years has been my collaboration with Joyce C. Havstad on the science and politics of climate science. We have a paper forthcoming in Perspectives on Science, a chapter in an edited collection responding to the “Pragmatic-Enlightened Model” of science advising that influenced WG3 of the IPCC, and another journal article under review. I made some edits to one of our papers based on the content of Heather Douglas‘s Descartes Lectures and some conversations I had with Heather around the lectures, and it prompted the following exchange of ideas about and interpretations of the Argument from Inductive Risk (AIR).

Joyce C. Havstad: I’d be interested to hear more about your updated understanding of the argument from inductive risk—especially, what the difference between the argument “not applying” and “not being salient” is. I don’t want to dispute those changes to how the scope of the argument is presented in this version of the paper, but I would like to get a better sense of what that difference signifies.

Matthew J. Brown: So, here’s how I used to understand the argument from inductive risk (simplified to the case of hypothesis acceptance):

  1. Scientists make choices about whether to accept or reject hypotheses.
  2. Evidence, logic, and epistemic values leave greater or lesser amounts of uncertainty about a hypothesis.
  3. When that uncertainty is non-negligible, we have high to set our standards of acceptance.
  4. How high we set our standards of acceptance trades off false-positive and false-negative errors, all else being equal.
  5. Sometimes there are socially/ethically significant consequences of those errors.
  6. Sometimes, those consequences can be anticipated.
  7. When (2-5) hold, we must make value judgments about standards of acceptance.

That could probably be a bit more precise, but that’s basically my understanding. Under these conditions, the AIR applies if uncertainty is non-negligible, if there are social consequences, and if they can be anticipated, and it doesn’t apply when any of those are false.

Here’s my new understanding (again, simplified), which I think is a much clearer, stronger view:

  1. Scientists make choices about whether to accept or reject hypotheses.
  2. Evidence, logic, and epistemic values tell us the strength of evidential support for a hypothesis, but there is always an inductive gap between the evidence and the hypothesis.
  3. The decision to accept, infer, assert, or endorse a (non-trivial, ampliative/inductive) hypothesis is an action that requires us to “step across” that gap.
  4. No amount or strength of support necessarily compels us to assert, infer, etc.
  5. Instead, we require some sort of practical reason (i.e., values) concerning sufficiency conditions for asserting, inferring, etc.
  6. Where there are foreseeable consequences of error, these are among the relevant practical reasons.

On this interpretation, the AIR always applies. Determination of what counts as “negligible” error is already a value-laden affair. But when the evidential support for/against a hypothesis is very strong, and there don’t seem to be foreseeable socially-relevant consequences, then the AIR is not very salient. Or perhaps it would be better to say that cognitive values, bon sens, and whimsey rather than social and ethical values are salient.

This is how I interpret Douglas’s latest & greatest presentation of the AIR. What do you think?

JCH: About the old and the new inductive risk arguments: those two arguments seem quite different to me. Most importantly, it seems to me as though they would each require very different things in the way of support.

Although I think that I can see how your prior interpretation of AIR is supported by work already done—especially, for instance, by the case detailed in Douglas’s 2000 paper on inductive risk—I’m not sure I’m aware of work that supports the updated AIR.

Premise (3) in the second argument seems particularly new and interesting, and seems to require further support. I’d also want to know about the intended scope of premises (4) and (5), and to see the support for those scoped claims.

MJB: Here are some chunks from Heather’s Descartes Lectures that I take to support the new interpretation. (Whether this is sufficient to establish the point or coheres with the prior work, I’m not entirely sure, though it coheres nicely with my own intuitions about assertion.)

To upend the value-free ideal, and its presumptions about the aim of purity and autonomy in science, one needs to tackle the ideal qua ideal at the moment of justification. This is the strength of the argument from inductive risk. It points to the inferential gap that can never be filled in an inductive argument, whenever the scientific claim does not follow deductively from the evidence (which in inductive sciences it almost never does). A scientist always needs to decide, precisely at the point of inference crucial to the value-free ideal, whether the available evidence is enough for the claim at issue. This is a gap that can never be filled, but only stepped across. The scientist must decide whether stepping across the gap is acceptable. The scientist can narrow the gap further with probability statements or error bars to hedge the claim, but the gap is never eliminated.

Note that while [epistemic values] are very helpful in assessing the strength of the available evidence, they are mute on whether the available evidence is enough, on whether the evidence is strong enough to warrant acceptance by scientists. Epistemic values do not speak to this question at all. They help to organize and assess how strong the evidence is, but not whether it is strong enough (as, recall, it will never be complete).

Social and ethical values, however, do help with this decision. They help by considering the consequences of getting it wrong, of assessing what happens if it was a mistake to step across the inductive gap—i.e, to accept a claim—or what happens if we fail to step across the inductive gap and we should. In doing so, such values help us assess whether the gap is small enough to take the chance. If making a mistake means only minor harms, we are ready to step across it with some good evidence. If making a mistake means major harms, particularly to vulnerable populations or crucial resources, we should demand more evidence. Social and ethical values weigh these risks and harms, and provide reasons for why the evidence may be sufficient in some cases and not in others.

JCH: Here’s the crux of the issue as I currently see it:

Say I’m looking at a petri dish with, as I count them, 5 nematodes in it. It is true that there will always be an inductive gap that exists here: a gap between (a) my looking at the dish and thinking I have some strong evidence using my eyes and my counting ability for thinking there are 5 nematodes in it, and (b) my making the decision that the evidence provided by my eyes and my counting ability is sufficient for me to mark down that the dish has 5 nematodes in it.

And we could say that the AIR risk always applies, even to moments like the one described above, because of the presence of the inductive gap. If we go that route, then the nematode-counting case is probably just one of those cases where making a mistake risks only very minor harms, and so we’re ready to step across the gap with just the evidence of my eyes and my counting ability. On this view, we could say that the nematode-number-marking decision is a value-laden one that requires considering not just epistemic or cognitive but also ethical and social values. But surely this decision will not require nearly the same degree of involvement of non-epistemic values, consideration of risks, engagement with stakeholders, etc. that, say, the EPA’s decision about where to set the acceptable levels of dioxin regulation did, or the IPCC’s decision to offer a set of three particular global temperature increase pathways should. Despite the AIR applying in all three cases (on this interpretation), the cases will not be ethically and socially value-laden in the same ways or to nearly the same extent.

Alternatively, we could maintain something of a distinction between the notion of an omnipresent inductive gap and the idea of inductive risk. If we go this route, then it is true that the nematode-counting case includes, as always, an inductive gap; but it is not necessarily true that the nematode-number-marking decision is an inductively risky one (again, because it is probably just one of those cases where making a mistake risks only very minor harms, in the sense that any decision ever risks very minor harms). On this view, the AIR applies only to a particular set of the decisions involving the inductive gap—for instance, those in which there are notable, foreseeable consequences of error with significant ethical and social implications. And probably also those cases which might have such implications but where the consequences are not as foreseeable (i.e., the so-called “gray areas”). Here (on this interpretation), whether and how the AIR applies tracks whether and how the relevant cases will be significantly ethically and socially value-laden.

Either way, not all cases with an inductive gap are the same with respect to their ethical and social value-ladenness. I think that I care less about being able to say that all decisions are ethically and socially value-laden (in what looks to me like a pretty trivial sense), than I do about being able to identify which decisions are significantly ethically and socially value-laden (in a discriminating and useful sense). This is because I want to be able to identify and address those extremely risky decisions which are currently being made without proper consideration of ethical and social values, but which are in dire need of them—like the EPA and the IPCC cases, but not like the nematode-counting one. To me, it is a strength of your prior interpretation of the AIR that it is able to clearly discriminate amongst cases in this way; the newer interpretation looks to be somewhat weakened along this dimension, though that may be the result of some generalization or vagueness in this [i.e., MJB’s] rough draft of the argument.

Regardless: whether we want to say that the AIR always applies, or that it is merely the inductive gap which is always present, I think that it is clear that not all decisions to cross the inductive gap are the same in terms of value-ladenness. Some are much, much riskier than others; and some require the consideration of ethical and social values to a far greater extent and perhaps even in a different kind of way than others.

What all this means is that I don’t think we can reliably infer, merely from the presence of an inductive gap, that we are in one of these situations rather than another. In other words, it’s not the inductive gap itself which carries the relevant ethical and social entailments which concern me; I care about the relevant social and ethical entailments; so the mere presence of an inductive gap does not for me a relevant case make. And (so my thinking goes), we ought not to treat it like it does.

MJB: Yes, I agree that not all decisions to cross the inductive gap are the same, in terms of value-ladenness. But is the difference between the cases primarily an epistemic question or primarily a values question? In other words, are some decisions less value-laden as such, or are the values just less significant in some cases?

I think on my old interpretation, it is natural to see the question as primarily an epistemic one. Inductive risks are a worry when risks of error are high, which requires uncertainty. Lower uncertainty, lower risk of error, less worry about IR. I think this opens up the AIR to the problems with “the lexical priority of evidence” that I raise in “Values in Science beyond Underdetermination and Inductive Risk.”

On the new interpretation, the difference is primarily an ethical one. Inductive risks are a worry when risks of error are salient, which requires social consequences to be foreseeable and significant. Stronger evidence reduces our worry about error, but only if it is strong enough. In some areas, social/ethical implications may be weak or may not exist, but we still need some kind of values to license making the inference/assertion. Maybe they’re merely pragmatic/aesthetic rather than social/ethical. (Here I’m thinking about Kent Staley‘s work on the AIR and the Higgs discovery, which shows that IR is an issue even when social and ethical values really aren’t, except maybe the about of money spent on the LHC.)

Also, I think that on this view, I think we can see why the direct/indirect roles distinction has merit but needs to be reconfigured and treated as defeasible. (But that’s a promissory note on an argument I’m trying to work out.)

I also think there is strategic value in insisting that the AIR applies everywhere, and that all the decisions in science are potentially value-laden. Scientists are too quick to dismiss potential ethical concerns and to see their work as governed mainly by technical/epistemic issues, and they are not encouraged to work very hard to foresee possible consequences of their decisions. They often don’t even realize they’re making decisions. And while the social/ethical consequences in some cases are quite obvious, there are plenty of cases where they crop up where least expected. So I’d rather have working hard to foresee the possible consequences of seemingly technical decisions be a core part of the job description, rather than thinking of it as an exceptional case. (This is partly why I’m currently focusing on moral imagination as a central concept for the values in science debate.)

JCH: I think I agree with most everything you say here, especially the part about the AIR being about not just error and uncertainty but also about risk and consequences. However, I also see both those things as being well represented in your prior interpretation; I might even find them less well represented in the new one.

Perhaps the new interpretation does more to highlight the ubiquity of the phenomenon under study. However, when the argument is glossed in that way (as it is, for instance, in your final paragraph), I have a hard time distinguishing the supposed problem of inductive risk from the plain old problem of induction.

BTW, I’ve been pondering the scope of the AIR for quite some time now, so I’m very pleased to be going back and forth on this issue with you now. At the very least I’m starting to better understand the nature of and motivation for the ubiquity claim, even if I’m not quite persuaded of it.

Duck Genitals and Feminist Science Studies

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Spring 2013 saw another round of misguided right-wing attacks on basic scientific research in the U.S. Congress, a political tactic that purports to demonstrate the wastefulness of the federal government by showing off the price tag (often small in terms of scientific research budgets) for obscure research that can be described in ways that make it sound goofy or idiotic. This time around, it peaked my interest a good bit more, because it brought national media attention to one of my favorite bits of biological research: Patricia Brennan’s work on duck genitalia. (Brennan wrote a wonderful defense of her research for Slate. Even the Union of Concerned Scientists weighed in.)

Why do I love this research so much? The biology is interesting, yes (more on that in a minute), but also, as a philosopher of science with a long-standing interest in feminist science studies, I see it as following the exact structure of some of the classic cases from that literature. That is, Brennan’s work exemplifies the pattern of research of women entering a field of research dominated by men, revolutionizing and improving the methods and theories in that field. It is thus similar to the earlier cases of primatology as described by Donna Haraway—where scientists hadn’t paid much attention to the behavior if female primates and ended up with theories where their roles were entirely passive—and reproductive cell biology as described by (inter alia) Emily Martin—where the “Prince Charming/Sleeping Beauty” theory of sperm/egg fertilization was a going idea, I kid you not.

To get the basics, let’s start with this “True Facts” video by Ze Frank:

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Philosophy, Funding, and Conflict of Interest

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A couple of weeks back, Justin Weinberg at the Daily Nous posed a really interesting question. The context was Daniel Dennett’s review of Alfred Mele’s book Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will. Dennett gives a relatively standard story about conflict of interest in science funding using a hypothetical story of saturated fat research funded by “the Foundation for the Advancement of Bacon.” On standard accounts, we are right to apply a higher level of scrutiny towards research whose funding displays a potential conflict of interest, and this is why, e.g., we have COI reporting requirements in certain journals and for federally funded research.

Dennett then points out that Mele’s work is funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which (simplifying a bit) has an ultimate agenda the integration of science and religion, and lately has been funding large projects that involve philosophers, scientists, and theologians working together on a shared theme, like Free Will or Character. Mele has received and managed two such grants.

Here’s Justin:

Mele’s project is not the only Templeton-funded philosophy project, nor is Templeton the only source of funds with an agenda. Dennett is claiming that funding from ideological sources casts a shadow on philosophical research in much the same way that funding from industry casts a shadow on scientific research. Is he correct?

Unfortunately, the question was lost as the thread got hijacked by a lot of nonsense, specific details about Templeton and Dennett’s neo-Atheist anti-Templeton agenda, as well as some understandable pragmatic implications of Dennett’s statements on Mele’s character. Most egregious were the many denials that conflict of interest is an issue in science, that they somehow amounted to a fallacious ad hominem argument. For instance, Terrance Tomkow and Kadri Vihvelin claim “the motives of the researcher or his employers are always beside the scientific point.” Dennett answered this point well when he said,

As for Tomkow and Vihvelin’s high-minded insistence that one is obliged “to ignore” the sponsorship of research, I wonder what planet they have been living on recently. Why do they think that researchers have adopted the policy of always declaring the sources of their funding?

Or as Richard Zach said, “It’s as if the past few decades of work on values in science didn’t happen.”

I think Justin’s original question is interesting, though, because it encourages us to think past the specific details of Mele’s book, Dennett’s critique, and the Templeton foundation. Maybe it is because I work at a STEM university, but I often hear talk that the humanities are going to have to move more towards extramural funding. For philosophers, Templeton is where the big money is, but there are also plenty of smaller private foundations, donors funding endowed Chairs (as Zara pointed out), and so on. It’s a timely question. And it is one that invites us to reflect on the similarities and differences between the sciences and philosophy (or the humanities more broadly). I wish more commenters had taken up the call.

I would suggest one analogy and one major disanalogy between science and philosophy in regards to conflict of interest. The analogy is, if I understood him right, what Dennett was getting at: funding applied on a large scale can alter, or even distort, the research agenda of a discipline. And evaluating that will require us to think about what the research agenda ought to look like.

The importance of research agendas in science is the centerpiece of Philip Kitcher’s Science, Truth, and Democracy and Science in a Democratic Society. He describes the ideal research agenda for science or a scientific discipline as well-ordered science (WOS), and he argues persuasively that not only epistemic and internal disciplinary values, but also practical and ethical values are central to determining what counts as WOS. Further, he argues that WOS should be evaluated democratically, in some sense. Because science is a social institution, it is ultimately responsible for serving the public. Kitcher also rightly recognizes the roles of funding sources and individual choices in actually setting research agendas, and argues that individual sciences have a duty to stand up and fight for change when the research agenda in their field is very far from well-ordered.

Likewise, we could ask about what “well-ordered philosophy” would look like. Presumably, many philosophers (like many scientists) would argue that notions of intrinsic intellectual/philosophical merit, strength of argument, and freedom of research should determine the ideal research agenda. I, and I suspect Kitcher as well, would prefer pragmatic, ethical, and political considerations to play a role. Either way, we can ask whether and how funding sources are moving us towards or away from a well-ordered research agenda.

Mele’s work discusses Free Will, argues that contrary to some triumphalist claims, the sciences haven’t settled the question yet, criticizes some of those claims by scientists, and is agnostic about whether free will is compatible with determinism. I’m not sure how those things fit with the ideological agenda of Templeton, though I can understand the feeling that they do, somehow. And insofar as Templeton wants to stay a major player in funding research on Free Will, we could see more of this sort of thing, less of other approaches. Zooming out to the context that Justin invites us to consider, it is worth wondering what the effects of funded research can be on the research agenda of philosophy, and it is worth deliberating about whether some funding sources should be considered a problematic conflict of interest, Templeton included. (My own view, held tentatively, is that Templeton is alright in this respect but should be closely monitored.) But also note, that until one has a sense that funding agencies are having a systematic effect, it doesn’t seem reasonable to criticize individuals in the way that Dennett does (if implicitly).

The disanalogy I would like to mention has to do with the different types of arguments that are made in empirical science and in philosophy. Philosophical arguments are usually scholarly while scientific arguments are generally technical. I mean these in a specific sense inspired by Bruno Latour’s Science in Action (N.B., these terms aren’t the ones Latour uses). To make an argument in philosophy requires nothing more than a library card, writing implements, the ability to adopt the current style of the literature in the field you wish to contribute to, and the ability to craft an argument. Scholarly arguments can be evaluated on their surface—you need only to examine the content of the text itself, and perhaps the cited sources, to understand the argument or produce a counter-argument.

Some elements of scientific texts can be evaluated in this way. But scientific arguments are also technical. In particular, much of the argument hangs on what Latour calls inscriptions—tables, charts, graphs, and figures—produced by instruments. There are hard limits to how far one can interrogate a technical text. One can raise questions about certain inferences and interpretations, and one can examine the equipment and materials that produce the data and the inscriptions, at least, as long as one has an invitation to the relevant laboratory and the patience of one’s host. But past a certain point, making an effective counter-argument requires a counter-laboratory with instruments producing inscriptions that can be used in arguments. To a large extent, the technical nature of modern science is a major source of its power and effectiveness; but a cost is that we have to rely on trust to a greater extent. And conflict of interest is at least a pro tanto reason to withhold that trust, whereas trust is not at issue in philosophical arguments in the same sense.

So while it is incorrect for Jim Griffis to say that “If the ‘science is impeccable, carefully conducted and rigorously argued’ there would be no problem with who paid for the research,” because of the technical nature of science, he is right to say that “for philosophical works, either the argument is cogent or it’s not.”

Full disclosure: I have previously applied for (but not received) Templeton funding.

Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth

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I’ve just begun reading Jill Lepore’s new book about Wonder Woman and William Moulton Marston. So far, I’m finding it to be really thorough and excellent! I was a little disturbed, though, to discover that on the first page of the preface, Lepore makes a basic mistake about one of the key features of the early Wonder Woman comics:

“She had a magic lasso; anyone she roped had to tell the truth”(xi).

She repeats the point in one of the color plates in the middle of the book, which does show Wonder Woman compelling a thug to tell the truth. The accompanying text that connects this work to lie detectors and Marston’s work on deception is ultimately misleading, however.

What’s the problem here? Isn’t it called “the Lasso of Truth?” The problem, as Brian Cronin pointed out a couple of years ago at Comic Book Resources, is that this is actually anachronistic. Marston called this iconic element of Wonder Woman’s gear the “Magic Lasso” or sometimes “Golden Lasso,” not the lasso of truth. And its power has nothing specific to do with the truth, but rather with compelling obedience.

Lasso1

LieDetectorAIt’s a tempting connection to make Marston, after all, invented the lie detector test, or at least, he’s one of its most recognizable developers and proponents. It’s a common and tempting connection to draw:

Here’s Geoffrey Bunn, one of the few historians of psychology to write in detail about Marston:

“Anyone caught in the lasso found it impossible to lie. And because Wonder Woman used it to extract confessions and compel obedience, the golden lasso was of course nothing less than a lie detector.” (Bunn 1997, p. 108)

slaveThe real story behind Wonder Woman’s magic lasso is much more interesting and much stranger. Marston was an experimental psychologist who developed a theory of emotions. According to his theory, the four basic emotions were Dominance, Compliance, Inducement, and Submission. According to Marston, submission was a matter of giving over one’s will to a basically friendly stimulus; not only was it necessarily a pleasant emotion, but it was a necessary component of love and thus of a healthy psyche. What the magic lasso was able to do, it seems, was to place the person bound in an automatic state of submission to the will of the lasso’s wielder, making them happy to do whatever you asked. Including, occasionally, to tell the truth when they intended to deceive. Lasso2

However, more often than not, when Wonder Woman wanted to know whether someone was telling the truth, she’d make use of the very tool that Marston invented for that purpose, a lie detector test based on systolic blood pressure measurements.

LieDetector1

 

Above I called the mistake an anachronism, because while Marston never used the term “Lasso of Truth,” present day comics do refer to it by that name. According to Cronin, this usage began in Wonder Woman volume 2 #2 (1987; Writer: Greg Potter, Artist: George Pérez, Editor: Karen Berger). This is the post-Crisis reboot of Wonder Woman, meaning that it occurred after the Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series that altered the continuity of the DC Comics universe. Presumably, the creators knew about Marston’s interests in lie detection, and decided to change the powers and name of the lasso accordingly. (On the other hand, the commenters on Cronin’s piece suggests that the usage comes from the Wonder Woman TV show starring Linda Carter, so perhaps the connection was made by the creators of the show.)

UPDATE: Noah Berlatsky gets it right in his new book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

Besides her superstrength, superspeed, superendurance, and other physical prowess, [Wonder Woman] also has bracelets that she can use to block bullets, an invisible plane, and a magic lasso that compels obedience to her commands (in later iterations, the lasso’s power is often downgraded so that it forces people to tell the truth rather than forcing them to obey any command).

What is “The Hanged Man”?

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“The Hanged Man” was an online Synchronet BBS Home Screen alias or “handle” I adopted somewhere around 1994, when I didn’t even have access to the internet and instead was using local dialup bulletin board systems (BBS’s). I continued to use the name on into the next millennium, when I started a webpage and got an email address. I’ve continued to use it into the present mostly out of inertia. It’s also a fairly memorable handle, and I’ve had the web domain long enough not to want to give it up.

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Wishful Thinking and Moral Imagination

A bit of writing that I was doing for my book went on a tangent that I really cannot incorporate into the book. But I decided to follow it anyway, because it was fun and interesting and kind of weird, to see where it lead. Well, it led me into almost 2000 words of writing, below.

There is no life I know
To compare with pure imagination
Living there, you’ll be free
If you truly wish to be1

In a variety of contexts, “wishful thinking” is used as a pejorative. In politics, wishful thinking is a charge political realists levy against radical reformists who want more than gradual and piecemeal change, who do not subject their calls for reform to cost/benefit analysis and the like. In another area, those who defend an apolitical, value-free conception of science argue that feminist philosophies of science and other value-laden approaches give license to replace scientific evidence with wishful thinking. Much work in the literature on values in science lately has been devoted to refuting this claim, arguing that value-laden science need not engage in wishful thinking, that it remains objective (Longino, Harding, Douglas), that introducing values makes science more demanding, not less (Kourany). Of course, some values influencing some science in some ways will amount to wishful thinking, but these account seek to rule such science out of bounds, epistemically or even ethically.

What if we, instead, question the universality of the negative evaluation of wishful thinking. Isn’t wishful thinking, after all, connected with our capacity for imagination, which is important to the creativity that drives scientific discovery, as well as to the moral imagination that, I would argue, is central to our ethical decision-making and our moral life? I think so, and if so, there are reasons to mount a moderate defense of wishful thinking in some sense.2 Indeed, we can look to a wide variety of artistic works that hold up the power of wishful thinking.

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Notes on Anthony Weston’s How to Re-Imagine the World

Anthony Weston‘s How to Re-Imagine the World: A Pocket Guide for Practical Visionaries is, like Fesmire’s John Dewey and Moral Imagination and Johnson’s Morality for Humans, a book about moral imagination and its importance for our decisions about how to live. Unlike either of those books, though, there is not a whit of philosophical theorizing about ethics in this book. As Weston puts it in his opening words, “This book is a guide to creative thinking in service of radical social transformation” (p. 1). And that it is. In its small 142 pages it covers a wide variety of exhortations, strategies, and tips for creative thinking about our lives and our world.

Weston is relentlessly positive, perhaps even Romantic, without coming across as utopian in an out-of-touch, unconstrained idealism sort of way. The emphasis of the book is on vision and ideas. This is not a guide for practical activism on the ground, though there are tips and suggestions here and there about how to bring visions and ideas to life. No doubt, those truly hardened by Realpolitik and incrementalism, and many others besides, would find this book hokey and unrealistic. I see it as an invitation to be perceptive about the actual, and bring the imagination to bear in order to discover the possible. One of the best parts of the book is that it is constantly fleshing out its advice with examples that are fleshed out enough to be suggestive, but brief and sketchy enough so that you don’t get bogged down in the details. Again, some may find the style off-putting, but I liked it.

The book is organized into 23 very punch chapters (plus an exhortatory introduction and a brief afterword). The chapters are organized into five sections that are labeled with a few sentences describing major themes or strategies rather than section headings. The first section deals with the importance of working from a big-picture vision of the social reality one is aiming for. Visions inspire, bring people together, give us something positive to strive for, rather than merely a problem to fight against. The second section deals with strategies for creative or generative thinking, different ways of coming up with creative ideas that could drive social change. The third section goes in a somewhat more practical direction, providing suggestions for how to look for “tipping points” and other dynamics that make radical change achievable. Here I was reminded of Fesmire’s discussion of moral imagination as “creatively tapping a situation’s possibilities.”

The fourth section of the book discusses the way that cultural institutions, practices, norms, and world views can act as barriers to change, but also can be shifted and reconstructed to make change possible. The final section deals with more practical issues of how to build momentum behind idea, make alliances, and achieve goals. (This, for me, was the least satisfying part of the book, in part because it didn’t seem to disclose very concrete possibilities for change.)

As an aside, I think there is a bit of the book where Weston neatly captures, in plain, easily digested language, the valuable insight from Martin Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology.” (At least, the take-away that I find valuable enough to keep teaching the essay.)

Let us adopt the term Resourcism for the worldview (assumption or ideology) that the Earth is essentially just a set of resources for our use. Trees are just standing lumber; rocky hills are just gravel pits waiting to happen; other animals are just living meat, and even you and I may be reduced to customers or ‘Human Resources.’ Take all of this to its logical conclusion and of course we have environmental crisis, an Earth being sucked dry. But it is hard to recognize the root cause when we don’t have a word for it Resourcism shows this world-view for what it is: a relentless, single-minded, narrow value-system, and certainly not the only one possible. (p. 115)

In sum, there are a few good reasons to read this book. If you’re in need of a boost to your moral imagination, if you’re hungry for social change but dissatisfied with the binary, oppositional terms of contemporary debate, or if you want to teach your students to think creatively about ethics and political philosophy, in terms of possibilities rather than abstract theories and criteria. Don’t expect a lot of philosophical depth or intellectual rigor, though; that’s not what this book is trying to do.

Notes on Mark Johnson’s Morality for Humans

Mark Johnson‘s Morality for Humans: Ethical Understanding from the Perspective of Cognitive Science is another book, like Fesmire’s John Dewey and Moral Imagination, that I am hoping to use as a background for Science and Moral Imagination. In the book, Johnson provides a broadly naturalistic, Deweyan pragmatist account of morality centered on moral deliberation and the role of imagination in moral deliberation. Johnson’s book complements Fesmire’s in much the way that I was hoping, i.e., it makes good use of Dewey’s distinction between “valuing” and “valuation” (though I thought Dewey called the latter “evaluation” — something I’ll have to check), and it discusses at length the relationship between science and ethics, not only the influence of science on ethics, which is a central part of Johnson’s story, but also the sense in which moral deliberation is a kind of empirical inquiry.

Johnson is probably most well-known for his long-term collaboration with cognitive linguist George Lakoff, and their work on embodied metaphor theory in cognitive semantics and its philosophical implications. It is no surprise that Johnson so adeptly reviews the empirical literature and draws implications for our understanding of morality. Johnson does not limit himself to embodied metaphor theory, but draws on the affective neuroscience of Damasio, the moral psychology of Haidt, the neurophilosophy of the Churchlands, the feminist developmental psychology of Carol Gilligan, and many other scientific sources as well as philosophers’ insights from a variety of traditions, in a way that is satisfying and provocative without becoming reductionistic or scientistic.

Chapter 1, “Moral Problem-Solving as an Empirical Inquiry,” provides a powerful argument against the idea that there is a special realm of “moral experience” and against the Kantian idea that there is a peculiar kind of “moral judgment” distinct from our ordinary repertoire of problem-solving strategies. Chapter 2 canvasses the various sources of our values, including biology, kinship, social institutions, and cultural sources. Johnson points out that some values will be universal or near-universal simply due to the necessities biological functioning and the requirements of any functioning social interaction or institution, though there will also be a lot of cultural variation. In this chapter, Johnson builds on and critically assesses Damasio’s affective neuroscience and Haidt’s moral foundations theory.

Chapter 3 reviews the popular two-process account of moral psychology, which posits an intuitive-level, affect-driven process of moral evaluation that rules most of our moral lives, and a process of moral reasoning whose main function is post-hoc justification of intuition. Johnson argues for either a third process, or another version of the second process of moral reasoning, which he calls moral deliberation, and the theory of moral deliberation occupies Chapters 4-5. Johnson does not dispute dual-process theory per se, but argues that there is another important process in our moral lives that it ignores.

Johnson’s account of moral deliberation is fully Deweyan. Moral deliberation is problem-solving inquiry that addresses a particular situation in which our habits, desires, and values are inadequate to the conditions of the particular situation. It involves gathering information about the situation and dramatic rehearsal in imagination of various possible courses of action. Johnson adopts whole hog Dewey’s view that this process is regulated by qualitative considerations, and that the goal of inquiry is to transform a situation characterized by an indeterminate, perplexing, problematic quality to one that is determinate, stable, allowing us to move forward in a satisfactory way. The process of moral deliberation as inquiry is “reasonable” if it actually transforms the situation in a way that resolves the problem or perplexity that occasioned deliberation. This process changes not only our values and our perception of the world, but the world itself and ourselves via a new structure of activities and interactions. (If anything from Dewey’s view of inquiry is missing here, it is his emphasis on “experimental testing” prior to judgment, but I must admit I am also unclear how this would work in the case of moral deliberation.)

The last three chapters held relatively less interest for me, partly because I didn’t need to be convinced of most of these things, partly because it doesn’t serve my needs as much. Chapter 6 takes to task those moral psychologists who have been tempted to revive talk of a separate “moral faculty.” Chapter 7, “Moral Fundamentalism is Immoral,” takes on both religious and rationalistic forms of moral fundamentalism, taken as the idea that there are either universally binding moral laws or absolute and foundational moral facts. These views are both incompatible with our cognitive machinery and detrimental to the needs of genuine moral deliberation, and so both impossible for humans to use and immoral insofar as we try. Moral realism is treated as an absolutist, foundationalist belief in moral facts independent of the natural picture of the world. (While this is certainly a common view under the heading of “Moral Realism,” I think Johnson is mistaken to treat this as the only way one could be a moral realist.)

Chapter 8 discusses the nature of moral experience and the moral self. Continuing the metaphysical discussion from the previous chapter, Johnson posits a pragmatist process metaphysics about values and norms, in contrast to both the objectivist metaphysics according to which values or principles are discovered, and a relativist metaphysics according to which they are arbitrarily made up. According to the pragmatist process view the metaphor of “creative transformation of our experience” and the moral deliberator as artist are much more apt. Johnson also defends Dewey’s view, which I have always found puzzling, that the ultimate end of moral deliberation is growth, on the grounds that moral deliberation requires a willingness to revise the values and habits that constitute the self to deal with ever new situations. This chapter also includes a detailed, and fairly satisfying, example of moral deliberation, about the ethics of gay marriage.

I think there is one major missed connection in Johnson’s account that connects very closely with my own interests. On the one hand, Johnson appears to hold a basically realist (if critical and fallibilist) attitude towards the science he relies on in his account. On the other hand, he denies moral realism because it is supposedly absolutist and foundationalist in untenable ways. However, Johnson himself denies that there are distinctive types of experience and inquiry. It is the first major argument of the book. Presumably, this would require us to reject the dichotomy between scientific and moral experience and inquiry, and to see his pragmatist process metaphysics as applying broadly to human knowledge, not just to values and norms. If this still permits a realist attitude about science, which I think it does, why can it not permit a realist attitude about the valuations that result from reasonable processes of moral deliberation?

My notes on Mark Johnson’s Morality for Humans

Update: I had a brief email exchange with Mark Johnson about the question at the end of the post, and he basically agrees with me. He just avoids talk of “realism” in this context because it has become associated with problematic views that are absolutist, fundamentalist, and foundationalist.

More Dispatches from Pittsburgh

What I’m reading this week: Morality for Humans by Mark Johnson, another broadly Deweyan account of moral deliberation centering moral imagination.
What I’m writing: An overview/plan of my book project and a talk based on it.
Other stuff I’m working on: Learning the ropes of Treasurer for HOPOS (why did I agree to this??); Anjan Chakravartty on scientific realism for our weekly reading group.
What I’m doing for fun: Fun???

I’m keeping very busy here in Pittsburgh, partly because I am not spending enough time here. I just got back from an unplanned trip to Dallas (nothing to worry about), and I’m going back across the Atlantic next week to give a talk.

Joyce Havstad and I have been having an interesting exchange over how to interpret the Argument from Inductive Risk (AIR), based on what Heather Douglas said in her Descartes Lectures. It’s been very helpful for me. Joyce is a delight to collaborate with, even when we’re butting heads on something. I hope to clean that exchange up and post it here on the blog tonight or tomorrow.

Pittsburgh is very hilly, though I’m getting to where I can get around more places without getting winded. I think I’ve pretty much got the ropes of the public transit system. I’m enjoying being around the Center for Philosophy of Science, though I think I’ll gel with the group more when I don’t have so much traveling to do.

Notes on Fesmire’s John Dewey and Moral Imagination

I enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it. Fesmire reads Dewey together with Martha Nussbaum on Aristotelian practical wisdom and emotion in ethics, and Lakoff on Johnson on embodied metaphor in cognitive semantics, to set forward an account of moral deliberation in which moral imagination plays a central role. (Havelock Ellis, Alisdair MacIntyre, and James T. Farrell all play supporting roles as well.) Typical of much Dewey scholarship, Fesmire’s approach is to think-with Dewey about the topic of moral imagination, rather than to simply provide an interpretation of Dewey’s work. The approach has costs and benefits, but for my purposes, it was a useful one.

The brief introduction starts with a silly quote from Havelock Ellis about “The academic philosophers of ethics” and their “slavery to rigid formulas” being “the death of all high moral responsibility.” It proceeds to identify a shift in the center of gravity of ethics, exemplified by the work of Nussbaum, MacIntyre, Nel Noddings, Bernard Williams, Charles Taylor, Owen Flanagan, and Mark Johnson. The shift is away from ultimate moral criteria towards practical wisdom, character, narrative, caring, moral luck, pluralism, and psychological realism. Rules and principles have a role to play in ethics, but not as ultimate criteria or as decision-procedures.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I consists of three chapters and reviews pragmatist philosophy of mind, moral psychology, and epistemology. The focus is on character, habit, belief, reason, and intelligence. A nice summary from Chapter 2:

Classical pragmatism situates reason within the broad context of the whole person in action. It replaces beliefs-as-intellectual-abstractions with beliefs-as-tendencies-to-act, pure reason with practical inquiry, and objectivist rationality with imaginative situational intelligence. (p. 28)

Bain, Peirce, and James play a big role in this first part along with Dewey. Given her focus on ethics and social issues, I wish that Jane Addams had played an equally central role, but she’s rarely given adequate treatment. Nothing in this section will surprise those familiar with classical pragmatism and the way this diverse cast of characters are usually put together into a unified (Dewey-centric) narrative, though Fesmire’s presentation is helpfully clear and concise.

Part II is the account of moral imagination in the context of pragmatist ethics. The first chapter provides the context for pragmatist (Deweyan) ethics more broadly. Some of the key features are: pluralism of ethical principles, factors, or values / value-types; moral deliberation as reconciliation or integration of these often-conflicting factors through inquiry; the value of moral ethical rules or principles is in making salient these independent factors or values. This chapter also introduces the two key ways that imagination plays a role in moral deliberation: empathetic projection as the imaginative adoption of values, perspectives, and attitudes of others, and creatively tapping a situation’s possibilities by imaginatively exploring different aspects of the situation and the dramatically rehearsing the possible courses of action they afford. (The latter, Fesmire holds, is Dewey’s main focus.) This kind of imagination is the ability “to see the actual in the light of the possible” (p. 67, quoting Alexander).

Chapter 5 discusses the role of imagination conceived as dramatic rehearsal in moral deliberation. (For Dewey, it is so central that sometimes he just refers to moral deliberation as “dramatic rehearsal.”) Dewey thinks of moral deliberation as a kind of problem-solving inquiry, where the conflict arises from the conflicts between currently held values in particular situations. For Dewey, deliberation or inquiry requires that rather than just acting in the face of a problem, we step back and withhold immediate action, channeling our conflicting impulses into dramatic rehearsal of possible courses of action. Exploring these possibilities through careful examination of the facts of the situation, bringing prior knowledge to bear, along with dramatic rehearsal is what intelligent moral deliberation requires; and finally, action is treated as an experimental test of the chosen hypothesis, whose success or failure will modify future conduct. Finally, Fesmire incorporates George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s work in cognitive semantics to argue that the imaginative process depends heavily on metaphor, and these metaphors are in fact central to our cognitive and linguistic machinery. These metaphors are, of course, embodied, in a way that fits well with Dewey’s emphasis as organism-environment-culture interaction as the scene of human mind.

The last two chapters constitute an extended exploration of the metaphor of “moral deliberation as art.” I was pretty skeptical of the value of this analogy at first, but I was convinced of its utility. One value of the metaphor is that it can help overcome the more dominant metaphor of morality as accounting, according to which well-being is wealth, duty is debt, and moral deeds are transactions. Another valuable feature of the metaphor is that it centers the importance of perceptiveness, creativity, skill, and the response of the Other (the audience) in moral deliberation.

I found myself disappointed in only a few ways. First, there was not enough attention to Dewey’s central distinction between what he calls valuing/evaluation, prizing/appraisal, satisfying/satisfactory, or desires/value judgments. It is there (notably on pp. 96-7), but it doesn’t play a huge role. Second, there was very little discussion of the relationship between science and ethics. Third, there wasn’t much engagement with other contemporary theorists of moral deliberation or practical ethics, besides those (like Nussbaum) who are clearly working a similar vein of thought as Dewey.

Descartes Lectures – Day 3 (in Tweets)

See my tweets summarizing Day 1 and Day 2

I think I went kind of crazy in the amount of tweeting I did today. But I don’t see how to edit it down for this purpose, so here you go. Again, I’ve included some of the talkback, even though it wasn’t all realtime, and some other live-tweeters.

Heather’s Lecture

Typo! That should be “science literacy” not “science literally.”

Commentaries

The explanation here was complicated, but what she was saying was that it is really possible to have the evidence presented in such a way, without all the little bits, e.g., the way that problems for the account of anthropogenic climate change arose, and were responded to.

Afternoon Sessions

Final Panel Discussion

Descartes Lectures – Day 2 (in Tweets)

See my tweets summarizing Day 1 and Day 3

We had another great day of the Descartes Lectures & Conference on “Science, Values, and Democracy” yesterday. Today generated a little more discussion on Twitter, which I inserted, out of chronological order.

Heather’s Lecture

(As I referenced above, we got to the root of this at our discussion at dinner.)

Commentaries

Afternoon Sessions!

My paper was next. Here is the main upshot of my paper:

Ideal of Moral Imagination: Encouraging scientists to recognize decision-point, creatively explore possible choices, empathetically recognize potential stakeholders, and discover morally salient aspects and consequences of the decision via dramatic rehearsal.

After that, I was moderating, and so I didn’t Tweet. But I had to add this:

On to Day 3!

Descartes Lectures – Day 1 (in Tweets)

See my tweets summarizing Day 2 and Day 3

Here’s what happened at Heather Douglas‘s Descartes Lectures & the associated conference, today. Or at least, what I Tweeted about it.

Preliminary Stuff

Heather’s Lecture: “Science & Values: The Pervasive Entanglement

Commentary on Douglas’s First Lecture

Didn’t tweet anything else about that, because I was giving the commentary! 😉

Q&A

Afternoon Sessions

It turns out, by the way, that I was wrong about this. “Value-neutral” means something related, but different. There’s no place in Douglas’s view for what Thomas was talking about… but he still wasn’t talking about “value-free expertise”!!

I really like this point.

In part, I think this is because my energy and attention span was really waning.

I won’t post the rest of my Tweets about Alessandra’s talk, because they weren’t very good, due to exhaustion.

Some encouragement

On to Day 2!