Reflections on Philosophy of Science, pt. 1

[The following is a translation of an old post from my Swedish blog]

Abstract philosophical questions is not something that only people with philosophy degrees are occupied with. As a social scientist one must sometimes reflect on some philosophical issues as well. Firstly, it might be good to think about what separates “science” from other human activities, and secondly, about the difference between natural science and social science (and maybe the humanities is also worthy of some attention).

The definition of science is probably not something that normal people lose any sleep over; but active scientists do probably need – at least from time to time – to assess whether a particular study should be regarded as scientific or not. In general, it is probably the case that a certain degree of empiricism has been prevalent since the birth of modern science (in the 16th and 17th centuries). In other words, hypotheses are scientific if they can be confirmed by observation, often in combination with mathematical/logical reasoning. Things that cannot be observed by our senses (e.g., mythological creatures) are not included in the domain of science.

It seems that this way of doing scientific studies has mainly been developed to make controlled experiments the gold standard for scientific rigor. We might, for instance, put some rats in a laboratory, control for as many environmental variables as possible (their food, their sensory impressions, and so on), and then observe what effects we get by systematically changing one of the variables (in cases where we cannot control for the variables we must attempt to settle for historical data, for instance). In the end, what most scientists are interested in is finding certain connections, i.e., what causes what. Do rats feel happy when eating sugar? Can apples cure cancer? Do children who have not been breastfed become violent adults?

This view of science was probably propagated most succinctly by the so-called logical positivists (who started ravaging around the 1920s, influenced by the early philosophy of Wittgenstein, among others). They believed that all statements that are not about empirically verifiable things or about purely logical deductions can be ruled out as unscientific – or as “metaphysical nonsense” if one wants a sharper formulation. The task of scientists should, thus, be to formulate hypotheses that could be verified by observation (which, by the way, has been criticized by Karl Popper, who thought that one should try to falsify hypotheses, instead of verifying them, because even if a hypothesis has been verified many times, it is still the case that one single contradictory case might destroy it.)

The standard view is probably that “pure” logical positivism is not something that all too many scientists (or philosophers) subscribe to, although the science being done from day to day still seems to move in the same precinct. The task is to attempt to show certain causal connections through empirical observation and to verify/falsify the hypotheses regarding these causal connections. Biologists or medical researchers who are interested in other things will probably be the subject of some skepticism among their colleagues.

For the logical positivists there was one, and only one, scientific method. Regardless of what we are studying, – it may be nature or society – we should use this method if we want to be scientific. If this positivist view of what is “scientific” is something that many natural scientists can, more or less, agree to, then one might ask: is it something that social scientists should agree to? Do social scientists think that one should apply the term “scientific” in the same way, regardless of the the object of study, or does “scientific” mean something else when one is engaged in the study of human societies and cultures?


The Real Slippery Slopes to Watch Out for

As argued in my last post I am not inclined to take slippery slope arguments seriously when they are not brought forward “in good faith”. But when those arguments are in good faith, I am more than willing to contemplate them. Usually, however, the slippery slopes in question are not very credible as empirical arguments. One example is the supposed slippery slope – involving gradually less respect for human life – triggered by allowing voluntary euthanasia. Another example is the slippery slope towards socialism – the “road to serfdom”, as F. A. Hayek put it.

The latter case is particularly interesting, since the slippery slope argument seems to be more credible the other way around. While we have not seen any democratic welfare state gradually turn into complete socialism (socialism/communism has always been achieved by non-gradual, non-democratic means), we see many examples today of slippery slopes away from the welfare state. And this is not hard to understand, since conventional wisdom suggests that it is much harder to raise taxes than to lower them, much easier to sell public hospitals, schools or housing projects than to buy them back (or build new ones).

One might say that the creation of the modern welfare state was the result of a rather special window of opportunity, rather than a slippery slope, whereas a return to laissez-faire might be possible as a slippery slope process. It is hard to build the kind of public trust that is necessary to maintain high taxes, but this trust is easy to tear down. Furthermore, tax cuts fortifies the economic power of the already rich elites and enables them to influence policies even more. Again, the slippery slope logic seems much more applicable to the gradual achievement of a “neoliberal” state, than a “socialist” state.

The environmental state of the world can probably also be described as a slippery slope process that follows the same logic as the case of the “degradation” of the welfare state. It is harder to gradually achieve the rigorous measures needed to save the planet than to simply stop worrying and wait for the flood. Again, the slippery slope towards environmental collapse is something that sits well with the rich elites, since if you are rich you can always escape the worst consequences of any disaster (unless the disaster is so complete that all titles of ownership become void). If we have to build an ark to ride out the flood, the best thing you can do is to make sure that you get a luxury cabin on board (while the poor are drowning, of course).

Another real slippery slope to watch out for is the gradual loss of democratic control over our states. While the achievement of democracy may have been somewhat more akin to a slippery slope process, it is nevertheless dependent on determined mass movements and political struggles. Once the latter elements disappear it is very likely that a slippery slope towards non-democracy begins. We see this today in countries like Russia. To prevent such a slippery slope in countries that are still somewhat democratic should be our first priority.

Are there any benign slippery slopes at work in the world today? Even though it may seem that religious fundamentalism is on the rise, it is probably the case that in the long run the process of secularization will continue. I think it was Thomas Paine who wrote (I’m paraphrasing form memory) that once you have thought something through, you cannot un-think it, meaning that once the process of enlightenment have begun, the forces of anti-enlightenment will constantly be on the retreat. Thus, I believe the slippery slope towards secularization, and even to agnosticism and atheism, will continue (although perhaps not in a completely linear fashion), unless something really radical happens in the world. Of course, some people would not regard this as a benign slippery slope. I believe they are entirely wrong when it comes to “fundamentalist” religion. When it comes to other kinds of “wishy-washy” religion, the case may be different, but that depends on many other factors that cannot be discussed here.

Using Slippery Slope Arguments in Good Faith

A slippery slope argument goes like this: Action A leads to consequence k. Consequence k will, in turn, make consequence happen, and will make consequence happen. While is not an obviously bad consequence, l is somewhat bad, and m is potentially catastrophic. Thus, action A should not be done, because it will eventually lead to consequence m.

Sometimes slippery slope arguments are simply dismissed as fallacies, but it is obvious that they are not inherently fallacious. However, the strength of the argument is very dependent on the strength of the empirical evidence that the consequences one invokes will actually occur. Such evidence is often lacking, and that is why slippery slopes are often dismissed.

As a consequentialist I am very open to slippery slope arguments. If I, as a hedonist,  make an argument about an action or a policy, and if someone can credibly claim that the action or policy in question will probably have bad consequences down the line, – even though the immediate consequences may appear good – then I would be perfectly willing to drop my argument.

Nevertheless, I am somewhat reluctant to take slippery slopes seriously if they are raised against me by people who are not consequentialists themselves; because even if I could counter the slippery slope with better evidence that removes the slipper slope, my antagonists would, presumably, not change their minds anyway, since their arguments do not depend on consequences at all. A parallel would be a scientific discussion where a pseudoscientist who rejects naturalism argues that the scientist’s naturalistic evidence is wrongly interpreted. However, if the pseudoscientist rejects naturalistic evidence altogether we would fell disinclined to take him ot her seriously in the first place.

I do understand, however, why non-consequentialists are eager to use slippery slope arguments, because it is mostly a win-win situation for them. If the argument is convincing, the consequentialist will have to drop her position. If the argument is unconvincing, the non-consequentialist can just fall back to her non-consequentialist principles and disregard the empirical evidence. For the consequentialist, it is, however, a lose-lose situation, since the non-consequentialist does not have to endorse the consequentialist’s position even it the slippery slope is successfully disproved.

In short, please bring up slippery slope arguments if you want, but do so in good faith. Be prepared to change your own views if the slippery slope does not pan out they way you thought in the first place. Otherwise, it is just like pseudoscientists (and similar folk) who argue against real scientists  by invoking empirical evidence, while they themselves refuse to state clearly which empirical evidence might falsify their own position.

A Reasonable Doctrine of Personal Responsibility

I do not believe in the existence of free will in any deep sense. Everything we observe in nature happens because of some prior cause. A puddle of water cannot decide to freeze; it is, rather, caused to freeze when reaching a certain temperature. Human beings are products of nature as well – simply a collection of atoms (note that there is no valuation implied in this use of the word ‘simply’), although our brains are infinitely more complex than a puddle a water, which means that most of our actions are infinitely more unpredictable than the ‘actions’ of most other objects in nature. So even a determinist (i.e., those who do not believe in the existence of free will in the abstract) should concede that, in practice, there is not much difference between a belief in free will and determinism.

Some would, however, claim that it makes a great moral difference whether you believe in free will or determinism. On this account, we cannot punish or reward anyone if they are not acting out of free will. As a utilitarian hedonist I must disagree with this statement. If the consequences of punishing or not punishing someone were the same, then it would not matter what we did. But the consequences are (almost) never the same. Even if the actions of a ‘rapist’ were determined by prior processes in the brain (i.e., they were not the result of ‘free will’), it still makes a difference whether we punish him or not. Among the most important consequences are that the streets will be safer with the rapist behind bars, and that other potential rapists will be deterred from raping. The last point is especially important; it indicates that our actions (even if they, in turn, are not the result of free will) can create new determining factors for the behavior of other people.

Thus, I view the question of punishment, blame, reward, and praise as wholly separate from the question of determinism or free will. Even though we could, at least in principle, describe everything that caused someone’s actions, we can still discuss how much this person should be blamed or praised, or how much personal responsibility we should ascribe to them. A general rule might be that the more we can actually assess the determining factors of someone’s behavior, the less responsibility we can ascribe. For example, if I were to watch someone get pushed into the street in front of a car, I could easily predict that this person would get involved in an accident, and so I could not ascribe responsibility to the person being pushed for the consequences of this accident. I could, however, ascribe a heavy responsibility to the pusher, because I could not predict her actions at all (unless, perhaps, there was another pusher behind her).

What about the responsibility for poverty or unemployment, which might be important to assess in order to decide who ‘deserves’ assistance from the state? Here we must apply sliding scales, since it would be highly unusual to find someone who is not responsible at all for their situation, as well as someone who is completely responsible for their situation. Again, the test would consist in predictability. We might predict that someone with a certain disability can be expected to have a hard time finding a job, which means that responsibility for this unemployment cannot be total. On the other hand, we might be able to find a not insignificant number of people who have succeeded in finding employment in spite of this disability, which would mean that our ability of prediction will decrease (at least ceteris paribus), while the level of personal responsibility will increase.

While certain  disabilities would decrease the level of responsibility for unemployment drastically, there are other things which would increase it drastically. An example of this would be laziness. While it is certainly true that laziness, as well as other personal traits, are endowed to us by nature, it it still the case that we can find many examples of lazy people who are able to control or overcome their laziness in order to get a job. In other words, it is very hard to predict whether someone who exhibits lazy tendencies early in life will succeed in finding employment or not. Thus, when it comes to lazy people, their laziness does not remove very much of personal responsibility. Furthermore, while the lazy person might claim that he is lazy for certain reasons (that he cannot remove), we can create other reasons for him to counteract this laziness by, for instance, nagging at him or threatening to remove unemployment benefits. This does not exclude the possibility that we might find rare cases of extreme laziness that cannot be overcome by any means, but in such cases we would probably not call it ‘laziness’ anymore, but refer to it as mental disorder.

So my suggestion is that the level of predictability regarding people’s actions should determine the level of personal responsibility we ascribe. Right now I am just throwing this out as an idea which, in the end, might prove to be untenable. In any case, the theory seems to fall in line with many of our standard practices in deciding whether we should accept someone’s excuses or not. If you are late to a meeting and make the excuse that you were late because you had to finish playing a game on your phone, people would probably not accept your excuse, because they could point to so many examples of people who like to play games on their phone, but still manage to get to meetings on time. If your excuse is that your train was late because of a terrorist attack, we would accept your excuse, because it would be very hard to find examples of people who would make it to work on time under these circumstances. It would, in other words, be easy to predict that a person stuck on a train during a terrorist attack would not make it to work, while it would be extremely difficult to predict whether someone caught up in a game on her phone will manage to make the time or not.

I guess the obsessive phone gamer would be able to say that once she started to play the game it would be very easy to predict that she would not make it to the meeting in time, given that we know how long the game usually lasts. Thus, we should not ascribe much responsibility to her. Here one could probably reply that even thought it was predictable that she would be late once the game has started, it was very hard to predict that she would take up the phone and start to play in the first place. Thus she had a very large responsibility for starting to play in the first place. And since she, presumably, knew of the risks that she would be late if she started playing, the responsibility for the tardiness remains high.

In the end, however, it must be added that praise or blame should only partly be determined by level of personal responsibility. The most important thing is always the consequences of punishing or not punishing. If we see many good consequences of not reprimanding the phone gamer in any way, in spite of high levels of personal responsibility, then we should not mete out any blame or punishment. Conversely, the consequences might be such that it is beneficial to punish people in spite of low levels of responsibility (indeed, we do sometimes lock up people who are dangerous to other people, even though they are very mentally ill and not responsible at all for their actions).

What is “Leftism” and How Can it Be Defended?

Recently I have been doing some writing on the concept “leftism” (which will probably be available soon as a small book). It is, of course, hard to define exactly what leftism is, but most people probably have a rough idea about what it means. My own method has been to approach the term as an ideal type, i.e., a sort of loose definition which enumerates characteristics normally associated with the phenomenon in question. When talking about ideal types, it is important to note that not all characteristics need to be found in all individual cases. But it is hard to say “objectively” how many characteristics one must observe, or how strongly they must be manifested. Again, an ideal type is not a precise definition.

For the purposes of my own investigations – and my defense of leftist politics – I assumed that the most important characteristic of leftism is a defense of relatively high levels of economic redistribution. It would be hard to call someone a leftist if he or she did not want higher levels of economic redistribution (mostly from rich to poor, of course) than, for instance, conservatives or libertarians, no matter how many of the other criteria for leftism they fulfill. On the other hand, it would, perhaps, be hard to call someone a “pure” leftist if she accepts high redistribution, but rejects all other characteristics of leftism.

The other characteristics or criteria that I include in my ideal type of leftism are support for: (radical) feminism, anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action, immigration and (some sort of) multiculturalism, bottom-up globalization and special rights for workers, and participatory and majoritarian democracy. One could probably also add environmentalist concerns (and a particular view of the state’s role to meet those concerns) to this list, but for different reasons I will not include it in my book.

I defend leftist politics by appealing to my hedonist ethics. I believe that, for instance, economic redistribution from the rich to the poor, a kind of feminism that makes us see beyond culturally specific gender roles, or a state that does not privilege any particular ethnicity or lifestyle can be defended on the grounds that it maximizes pleasure and (perhaps more important) minimizes pain.

I do not, in other words, appeal to Marxism in any way to defend leftism; and I believe that extensive ownership of the means of production by the state (or similar collective entities) would be mistaken. I believe leftists has relied too much on Marxism and other related theories to defend their positions. Hedonism is a more straightforward idea and it does not suffer from the many weaknesses that can be found in most other theories used to defend leftism. Of course, some may claim that the hedonist defense of leftism is not left enough. In that case, I would only answer that that would be a problem for such “left-leftism”, not for hedonism – unless, of course, the critics in question are prepared to make a philosophically rigorous argument against hedonism itself (and make better arguments for another moral theory).

My Ideology: Anti-Egoism

I usually discuss my ethics and my political philosophy. But to discuss one’s political ideology is to move some steps toward practical politics, leaving a few of the foundational steps behind for the sake of simplicity. After all, it is rare that a “conservative”, a “liberal”, a “nationalist” or a “socialist” is called upon to explain the moral foundations of their political views, and that is why we call these views ideologies rather than moral or political philosophies (but they can, of course, be propagated as foundational philosophies, provided that enough theoretical effort is made). And in real life (outside of the ivory towers of academia or think tanks, that is), we usually see no problem with the propagation of a “truncated” ideology rather than a complete political philosophy. In real life there is, alas, not enough time for the latter, nor enough philosophical know-how among most people to understand the philosophies in question.

So after this apology for the use of ideologies I would simply want to state what my ideology is. Put briefly, I probably adhere to what one might call anti-egoism. My view is that you simply don’t have a right to take for yourself more than is necessary for a decent life. By this I mean that you have a right to procure the means to uphold your own life (which, of course, also means keeping some savings for unforeseen events) and the lives of people who are dependent on you. I also grant the right to procure means for a few pleasures and interests that are necessary for a psychologically and culturally decent life. But wanting to go beyond this I would call egoism, at least in a world where many people lack the means to live this kind of decent life.

Now this anti-egoistic position does not by itself entail any specific economic system. In a very libertarian society the non-egoistic ideal could flourish if most people subscribe to it. In a world where many people do not subscribe to it political means are necessary to correct people’s egoism – means which might have different characteristics, depending on the circumstances. Often, however, the problem seems to be one of “financial” egoism, which often necessitates various redistribute measures through the tax system, along with other “leftist” tools. In this day and age the “environmentalist” toolkit seems to be highly appropriate as well.

I am perfectly ready to concede that some people will be happy to be egoists and claim that you basically have a “right” to anything that you can take for yourself. In real life, such conflicts are unavoidable. The resolution of these conflicts can only be left to democratic decision. I suspect, however, that few people would argue that egoism is an “ultimate” good. Some people would, no doubt, argue that egoism is bad, but that it is unavoidable. There might, for instance, be innovative and creative egoists who refuse to render any services to society unless their egoistic cravings are satisfied. I am prepared to concede that to some degree these cravings might have to be satisfied. But to what degree is an empirical matter. Anyway, it is all too easy to start up with the bad-but-unavoidable sentiment and slip into a good-because-unavoidable sentiment. As long as one avoids that slippage I believe the dilemma of unavoidable egoists is fairly manageable. At least as long as the egoists are not the majority.

So, that was the simple story of my political ideology. Less egoism in the world, that’s it. Not a complicated message, one might think. Of course, I am always ready to defend this ideology on a more philosophical level, but in – what I have called – real life such defenses are rarely called for; and I am beginning to think I am wasting my time with philosophical details.

Let’s Take the Power Back

Many people complain about different things around them every day. If we exclude purely “domestic” complaints, the most common themes are probably things like traffic jams, lack of parking spaces, trains or buses not running on time, stress at work, the price of a cup of coffee, littering, ill-mannered teenagers, etc. Less common (because they affect you less in everyday life), but not too infrequent, are complaints about taxes, pensions, crime rates, queues in the health care system, corrupt politicians, and so on. The list of examples could, of course, be much longer; but the point is that all of these things are to a large degree affected by political decisions (by what the politicians do or don’t do).

In spite of that, many people seem to prefer to complain in private, without engaging in any way in political life. Perhaps it may be psychologically satisfying to blow off some steam in private, but it does nothing to solve the problems. I must confess that I get more and more pessimistic about changing anything for the better in this world, just because of this general reluctance to get involved in political life. I am not saying that everyone should run for office or go to demonstrations every week, but the least one can do is to try to become a somewhat more informed voter – and this means keeping a constant interest in politics, rather than watching a few debates during election time. It would, however, be good if many more people could join political parties and become active members.

The underlying concern here is that democracy seems to be slipping out of our hands more and more every day. Most likely the important thing for people who want to change things radically (no matter in what direction) is not to discuss among themselves what policies would be best in the ideal world. The important thing is to reach out to “common people”, to wake them from their political slumber and apathy. If we sincerely believe in democracy, then we must show the political elites who really should have the power. At this stage I am almost tempted to say that the contents of the policies are relatively unimportant, as long as policies are really in line with what the people want.

The important thing now is to, so to speak, take the power back. When things like universal suffrage was achieved people got the power in the first place. But in most places this power was quickly relinquished to party apparatuses, which made it easy for “special interests” to manipulate the parties behind the scenes. What we need, in short, in politics today – besides a voting system that allows for many political parties to be represented in the parliaments – is much more transparency, popular participation, and popular interest and knowledge. More participation by totally uninformed people, on the other hand, would only lead to blind “populism,” whereby the masses themselves are manipulated by charismatic leaders; therefore increased knowledge as well as participation is vital.

Anyway, if we cannot achieve these things, it is futile – for the few of us who are interested – to discuss alternatives to the present “world order”. But I believe “real” democracy can be achieved. It is possible to envisage a culture where, perhaps not all, but many more people take an active interest in learning about politically relevant matters and in discussing them openly. Of course, this might entail some sacrifices; for instance, it might leave people with a little less time for pure recreation. But if we, the people,  cannot make that sacrifice, then maybe we do not deserve to live in a democracy anyway.