Ludwig Wittgenstein begins his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with the famous words “Die Welt is alles, was der Fall ist.” The world is all that is the case. Over the last few days there have been a number of attempts to distinguish science, as the study of what is the case, from other disciplines or modalities of thinking which also take note of what is the case. And, just for the record, all these discussions are really (to use Wittgenstein’s famous word for it) doing philosophy, and consitute an attempt to say what is the case with various kinds of utterance, whether scientific, moral, religious, and so on. For instance, Russell Blackford attempts to do something like this in his Talking Philosophy post, entitled “Is Science So Limited?” And Jerry Coyne has addressed the question in a number of posts: “Brother Blackford and Other Ways of Knowing,” “Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts,” and “Guardian writer foolishly claims that religion answers factual questions,” to go no further than three, and we should include Jim Houston’s Talking Philosophy piece here as well, since it was at least an oblique response to Jerry Coyne’s rhetorical challenge to Keith Ward about the factuality of religion. And all of them are doing philosophy, whether well or ill.
One of the real issues here, just to fill in a bit of background, is whether only science can tell us what is the case — was der Fall ist. But notice that when science tries to do this it must move into a different register, what we might call the basso profundo of philosophy. Because this movement into a new register is often not acknowledged the accusation of “scientism” is frequently heard from religious believers who claim that the new atheism is scientistic (not scientific, note, but scientistic) — that is, whether the new atheism is an ideology which simply declares certain things not to be the case, or, at least, to limit what is the case to the propositions of science. We can quote Wittgenstein again:
4.1 Propositions represent [darstellen = portray or picture] the existence and non-existence of states of affairs.
4.11 The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science (or the whole corpus of the natural sciences).
4.111 Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences.
(The word ‘philosophy’ must mean something whose places is above or below the natural sciences, not beside them.)
4.112 Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts.
Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity.
A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations.
So, for Wittgenstein, in his Tractatus phase, only science dealt with what is the case, and the totality of true propositions comprise the totality of science. But then, of course, it becomes almost impossible to say this, which is why, he suggests, what he says in the Tractatus should be used like a ladder, and then thrown away. Of course, as most people know, Wittgenstein was finally not content with this positivism — he simply could not remain silent, because he had so much more to say that did not consist in the propositions of science, and were in some sense true — a positivism which was doubtless influenced by his relationships with those who made up the Wiener Kreis (Vienna Circle), a group of philosophers centred around the University of Vienna in the 1920s. But the First World War changed all that, and perhaps just being a Wittgenstein changed all that too, for like his brothers, three of four of whom died by suicide, Wittegenstein had some pretty significant psychological problems. However, unable to remain silent, he went on to “invent” (that would not be too strong a word, I think) a kind of philosophy which dominated English-speaking philosophy in the fifties and sixties commonly known as “ordinary language philosophy,” and consisted in the clarification of our ordinary everyday concepts. And while one might want to say that philosophy must go much further than this, the achievement of conceptual clarification that was undertaken during this ordinary language period was not nugatory.
I think Russell Blackford’s suggestion about translating Tasso is important:
Consider a question such as, “Is the translation of Tasso on my desk a literal one?” There are various ways of investigating that. One way is simply to ask an expert on the subject. Another is to learn sixtee[n]th-century Italian, then compare the original text with the English translation. There is nothing distinctively scientific about either approach. Scholars were able to learn and use languages long before modern science (or, indeed, Tasso) was thought of. This is not the sort of thing that required a new word: “scientist”.
The question whether a translation is or is not a literal one is certainly a question of fact — an especially important question of fact when you consider the way that biblical translators sometimes translate the offensiveness of words and statements away. But it is not a scientific one. Of course, Ward wanted to say that religion deals with facts as well, like the resurrection of Jesus, but this is truly special pleading, since he gives us no reason to think that the Christian claim that Jesus rose (or was raised) from the dead is a fact, and, if it were a fact, it should be something that could have been verified by ordinary observation. For if it took special kinds of observation, such as with the “eye” of the soul, for instance, then there is no sense in which this could be called a fact, unless it were shown how such spiritual perception works, and how it distinguishes between true and false propositions in the particular realm where this special observation functions.
But there are other issues that are lurking here, and they should not be scouted. For Sam Harris rather famously has made a claim that moral questions can be answered by science, that amongst the true propositions of science are moral propositions. As I have said before, I do not think that Sam Harris makes his case. Indeed, it seems to me that Sam Harris badly misunderstands what the “is” – “ought” disjunction is really about. This has been addressed recently by Brian Earp — not Wyatt, by the way, though six guns seemed to be blazing — Henry Fellow of New College and grad student in experimental psychology at the University of Oxford — in a short, pithy essay, on the blog Practical Ethics sponsored by Oxford University, entitled quite bluntly, “Sam Harris is wrong about science and morality.” Earp makes a number of salient points, and he does not make them kindly:
In his new book (the one about lying) Harris says, in effect, you should never, ever, do it — yet his pretense in The Moral Landscape to be revolutionizing moral philosophy seems to me the very height of dishonesty.
And then he goes on to say, just as mordantly:
What he actually does in his book is plain old secular moral reasoning — and not very well — but he claims he’s using science to decide right from wrong. That Harris could be naive enough to think he’s really bridged the famous “is/ought” chasm seems incredible, and so I submit that he’s exaggerating* to sell books. Shame on him.
The asterisk points to the statement that the original draft had ‘lying’ instead of ‘exaggerating’, but the final product thus has it too. Earp’s point is the simple one that Harris doesn’t seem to understand the fact-value disjunction. He imports value into his system from the start, by saying that well-being is what morality is about, so when he appeals to science he already has value embedded in his morality, and all that science is doing is supplying facts about what people respond to positively and negatively. But, as Earp says, we don’t need science to tell us this, and unless he works it all out in detail, it’s hard to see what science is doing. For instance, says Earp, we know already that being oppressed, as women were/are by the Taliban, is a bad thing to have happen to women. We don’t need scientific data to tell us that being whipped or confined to one’s house (which can scarcely be called a home), subordinate even to one’s male children, where sex with one’s husband is an obligation, not a mutually shared time of joyous intimacy, and rape by one’s husband is not a crime, is not good for women. But this doesn’t mean that it’s a scientific fact that these things are immoral.
Here’s Earp in person asking the question and Sam Harris trying to answer:
The answer to the question should have been an explanation of how, at the level of science itself, without invoking value, we show that something is, scientifically speaking, the wrong thing to do. But Harris doesn’t answer this question; instead, he simply gets lost in a lot of irrelevant detail. He speaks of the incredible detail of some questions, such as the balance between compassion and bureaucratic efficiency, or truth claims regarding economics, and disagreement about global economic management. He also claims that we know that there are right and wrong answers which are true both for economics as well as morality, but he nowhere answers the central question about how science contributes to the rightness or wrongness of the answers. How does science as such adjudicate between the claim of the Taliban that women should be kept sequestered in the home, and the claim of the feminist that women should be free to choose how they will live, whether they will work or not, whether they will get married and have children or pursue a career, or whether they will do both? Saying that it is obvious which is more likely to improve a woman’s well-being is not an answer, because, while it seems obvious to me, anyway, which will contribute more to the woman’s well-being, this is not science, but common sense morality.
The real question is whether (i) science can confirm that Harris’s rather straightforward utilitarianism is right, or (ii) whether there are moral facts which are discernible independently of science. And Harris does not answer the question. Wouldn’t it be nice if he could, and we could say, with the kind of assurance we have when we speak about, say, the evolution of life, that such and such is, without doubt or prevarication, the right thing to do in such and such circumstances, instead of something else, which would also be possible in those circumstances, and just happens to be defended as the right thing to do by others. But Harris nowhere shows that this is possible, thus making it clear that there is no science of morality, because a science should be able to answer such questions, if so.
Roman Catholic moral theology claims that it can do this, that there is one and only one right answer to moral dilemmas, and we can know the right answer by knowing the essential nature of the thing. For instance, knowing the essential nature of humanity, and the essential nature of human sexuality, they say, as Edward Feser does say, that sex is to be used only for procreation and for no other purpose. Thus the form of sexuality is procreative, even in those cases where the man or the woman is sterile, or when the woman becomes so after menopause, and it is wrong, in every case, even where the protection of the woman or the man from infection is concerned, to use methods or medicaments which forestall procreation, or would do so if the partners were not sterile. It says the very same thing about assisted dying. Human life is sacred, according the magisterium, from conception to natural death. Any interference with the process of dying in order to hasten it is morally wrong, period, just as wrong as it would be to prevent conception in the first place, or to abort, by any means, the fertilised ovum from the moment of fertilisation.
Yet it seems to most of us that if there are such moral facts with this kind of certainty, the moral life itself becomes distorted and disfigured. Kant says somewhere that anyone who attempts suicide and fails can be treated like an animal. By committing so outrageous and sub-human an act they have become less than human, and they can be thereafter treated with the contempt with which we treat animals. (The recogniton of moral duties towards animals had not yet entered the moral dicsussion, and animals were treated with outrageous cruelty. Burning cats alive on stage, for example, was once thought to be wonderful entertainment, which even high-born folk attended with alacrity.) But surely this is to take the heart out of morality itself, which, at its core, pertains to the person and how individual persons make choices and carry them out. Thinking of morality as a matter of rules established beforehand, rules which can be applied in an almost algorithmic way, is somehow to miss what is most precious about moral acts, which possess a skill or a style, a nuanced, sensitive art of responding to others and to the choices available to one as one navigates one’s perilous way between the harms and goods that one might do by one’s actions. That’s why the Ten Commandments are useless as a moral guide. There is no nuance, no interpretation, no sensitive application of them to the complexity of the social umwelt that distinguishes one person from another as the persons they are, each in their own special way. Novels are much more insightful, very often, than moral philosophy, in helping us grasp what it means to live morally. To Kill a Mockingbird is far more sensitive — and can make us far more sensitive too – to the moral failings of a society locked into the us-them divisions of a racist society than any number of analyses of human well-being in the same circumstances could ever do.
So, are there moral facts, then? Yes, of course there are moral facts, and, as Sam Harris tells us, we know right and wrong when we see it — at least we often do, if we’ve been helped to understand and respond sensitively to other human beings, and other sentient beings as well. It’s just here that the religious want to put in their oar. Just as we know right and wrong when we see it, but can’t express it in such a way as to be able to make prescriptions that will stand come what may, the religious want to say that, if we are sensitive enough, and we commit ourselves to a certain style of life, we can recognise the things that the religious think of as religious, and speak about in terms of God and spirit. There are a lot of theologians who are ready to say that all the language about God and spirit are just ways of talking about being human. John Spong and Don Cupitt, for example, like Richard Holloway and the New Zealander Lloyd Geering, as well as the Canadian Anglican Ernest Harrison, who back in the 1960s wrote a book entitled A Church without God: all speak of religion as a human creation all the way down. There is no god, but god language they say can be used to speak about important things that human beings need to take into account, and that when they do not take them into account, life is less full of meaning and purpose than otherwise. I’m not convinced that this is true, but it is perhaps worth trying for those who are interested. One problem is how to keep this separate from religion in the more realistic sense in which it is usually understood. Another problem is to convince people who are religious that what they are doing is perfectly human, and that it is just another way of being human, not a way of being faithful to real beings, or hoping for a salvation that will be known in another life.
To bring this screed under some kind of terminal control, I think we have to acknowledge that there are all sorts of things that are the case that cannot be captured by science, like the literal or non-literal translation of Tasso or the Bible, like moral decision making, where it can be the case that one has been right or wrong, good or bad, or even, perhaps, like religion, where it is or is not the case that there is a dimension of human experience which religious believers have traditionally interpreted in terms of really existing gods and heavens and hells and other kinds of afterlife, but which is really about human beings and how they live most fully and purposefully right here and now, which is the only chance they’ll ever get to do it. But science does determine some limits as to what can be taken to be the case. Even after Aquinians are finished with their arguments for the existence of god or first principles, or whatever it is that comes logically at the end of a long train of reasoning, each step of which is either more certain or more empty of real content than the last, there is no thing that they can point to as the object of all their researches. They come to a logical terminus and then they say with Aquinas: ‘And this is what we call God.’ But that is the most that they can say, and the content of this first principle is, when it really comes down to it, as Davies says (quote in my last post but one), ‘radically incomprehensible.’ It seems to me that, having been pushed to these extremes by what we can say, it would be much better to leave it at that, and pass over this incomprehensibility in silence, than to try to stuff it full of mythological content, which must be simply wrong from the start, because it is, as Hitchens has pointed out to us, purely human, and it shows.