Monday, 9 November 2009

Relativism: morals, facts, truth

Terminology: as ever philosophy is beset by confusions caused by bad words, many concepts of truth and fact have emerged over the centuries and so I'm going to let truth cover as wide a range of these ideas as you care to think of, mathematical, physical, moral, metaphysical, poetic, whatever. But questions of observation I will call facts, these are unambiguous statements of what a suitably placed observer with the right equipment would observe about the physical world. Housekeeping done, on with the post.

A very good quote I like (I'm sorry, it was written by that horseman of the apocalypse Richard Dawkins, but I like it so there) which goes “there are no cultural relativists at 30,000 ft”. What is meant by that is that there are many people who contend that truth is relative and that we shouldn't follow what science has to say because there are other cultures with their own ideas. However when you do something where there is real risk, like flying in a plane, then suddenly the fact that the Puain people of Peru or whoever believe that flying will make the sun god angry is much less of a worry. This post is about different sorts of claims to truth and how we should react to them.

First question, why do people want to know things anyway? This depends on the sort of truth. We want to know maths and poetry and art and other things like that because it's beautiful, we want to know truths about morals to guide us in how we should live, we want to know truths about the world because it is the world that we live in as bodies and it can cause us pain if we misunderstand it, we want to know metaphysics for philosophic reasons etc.

The important things for this is why we want to know facts, we want to know facts because if we get facts wrong then all the direction that our lives get from all the other sorts of truth, all the beauty and spirituality you like counts for almost nothing. We as people may well be spiritual beings, but we interact with others and we learn about many forms of truth through our bodies. Our bodies are physical things, they act according to facts. It may well be a truth that “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone”, but it is a fact that a body thrown out of an upstairs window will hit the earth with great velocity. So if not hitting the Earth at great velocity is part of your plans then you can keep the truth of the first, but the fact should guide your action.

I see morality in two parts. First, we use all the truths we can do decide on moral principles, to decide what we want to see happen. Some people want to make others happy, some want to obey the ten commandments, some want to achieve a higher level of conciousness. Then comes actions, if your aim is purely metaphysical, then you have no facts to guide you and should use more truths to guide you, you are not influenced by the world and will not take it into account, this is totally acceptable, others may have to step around you if you are meditating in the middle of a path or something, but you do not concern yourself with such things and are irrelevant for the rest of this post.

If however, your aim involves, no matter how slightly, the physical world. You may want to make people happy or to obey the ten commandments or eat the worlds largest hot dog or something. In this case you must use facts, if you dont then you are failing to follow through your own moral code. If we aim to bring some physician set of circumstances into being then we must act in a way that is likely to make that happen. We dont say that a suicidal person who refuses to kill themselves when presented with the means to do it is following their own route to their aim, we say that they're not sincere or that they're dont want to follow the aim they set for themselves at all. You owe it to your own morals to do the things that they demand, to do the things that make it most likely they will come about.

Many people believe that something should happen, but frustrate it happening in practice because they dont follow facts. For instance people who want more prisons to be built, but who oppose the planning application for a new one near them, or people who demand public services and then vote against a referendum to implement them. As with all things there are complexities, one part of your aims may conflict with another in some small case or you may simply make a misjudgement, or equally be unlucky, follow the course the facts point you too and have it smack you in the face. But besides these cases there are many people who follow truth not facts.

When we want some situation to happen, we must seek and action of our own that makes this happen. We must take into account the way the physical universe works. To try and put the lid on a teapot by throwing it at the wall and hoping it bounces off is not a way of proceeding that is likely to work. The systematic study of what things work to achieve particular outcomes is science. The scientific method purely and simply is observing many events, spotting that one action mostly leads to some outcome, testing this hypothesis by doing the same action many times, and then for the time being doing that action whenever you want that outcome. This is not infallible. The universe is complex and we do not understand it. If I observe that some action results in some outcome I can never say totally and for all time that will work. But I can say that it is my best bet, that if I want that outcome then the way that will make it happen most of the time is to do that action. Likewise reading scientific articles or textbooks, scientists are not gods or popes, they make mistakes, all the time. But they do better than chance, a lot better than chance. In a simple problem of a block on a plane bouncing off another say: Newtonian mechanics will be right within 10% over 80% of the time if you're a good experimenter, randomly guessing will be right within 10% 10% of the time if you guess in the right ball park. Science is not a font of all knowledge, but there is no better way to find facts, if there were the scientific method would add as a theory that the result of this other process is correct, and so would induce all the predictions of this new method.

The quote at the top is sadly not universal. There are many people who use facts and truth in another way. In a recent UK case the home secretary had as a truth that cannabis and ecstasy are very bad, he had as a truth that there should be harsh penalties to prevent thier use and this lead him, I believe, to commit a moral error. His aim (that he decided with truth and consideration and all that other stuff) was that the policy of the UK should be to minimise the harm caused by drugs, he has never claimed any other aim and fervently believes that is what he wants. And yet, when facts are presented to him by a group of independent scientists that cannabis and ecstasy are not as harmful as he thought and that the best way to reduce harm is in fact not to put harsh penalties on it, I argue that he should, to be honest to his aims, have followed what these facts suggested. Instead he took the childish option of denying the facts. When facts contradict truths they often get pushed under the carpet.

And this is a failing that all of us experience. In year 9 we did and experiment in physics, to find the angle that you shine light into in a semi-circular prism so it just gets reflected out. I had at that time a well formed truth of the elegance of the laws of physics. So I did the experiment and got 43 degrees. My truth told me this was simply wrong, it must be a much neater number, 45 degrees. My aim in this was to learn the real nature of things, to uncover facts. I failed morally and fudged the results to get 45, the fact was there all along, but I chose my truth. I was told immediately that this was factuality incorrect and that 43 was right. This was a failing that I try very hard to guard against repeating.

Other people who want to educate children and make them most able to get jobs and to be moral and upright citizens of the community have truths. One such truth is that the theory of evolution is untrue, and if it were true that is is evil. The facts tell such people clearly and repeatedly that evolution is true and that knowing it does not make you immoral or lead to the breakdown of society. In reality the facts tell them the exact opposite. But once again we see a moral failing, truth wins out over inconvenient facts and the aim that is publicly declared is betrayed. The children are not educated, dont get good jobs and produce a society with more social problems.

The same happens with sex education people aim to protect children physically and emotionally from the effects of sex. Truth tells them that this should be done by not telling them about sex, or telling them it is evil, fact tells them it should be done by talking intelligently about the realities of sex and handing out condoms like they're going out of fashion. Which do you think wins, truth or fact? A moral failing once again and surprise surprise a chlamydia epidemic.

I suggest that a similar question exists over alternative medicine. There is no discussion of fact to be had, alternative medicine is by definition that stuff that has not been shown to work in physical tests. Those treatments where the facts say “this will not make you better”. There are people who aim to make themselves, or even worse their child, well, to physically improve their health. In some people their truth tells them that natural remedies* or homoeopathy or any other made up treatment, that factually does not work and has been shown not to work in endless double blind tests, will work for them. Often this is not a moral failing, often people here believe the facts to be on their side, they try an alternative treatment and they find that it works. In this case I suggest it is not a moral failing for you to not know about the placebo effect or regression to the mean or the malleable nature of experience, it is not a moral failing for you to be taken in by the liar in the lab coat who swears blind that tap water will cure you of cancer. It may be an intellectual failing or a failing in your education, but honest ignorance is not immoral. However, people who do know about it, people who have read up on the subject and seen the faked reports put out by quacks, seen the endless tests and meta-analysis that show exactly no effect, people who have been trained in critical thinking skills, then that is a moral failing. Same for people whose truth tells them that MMR is a conspiracy to spread autism, endless facts tell them that if they do not give their child MMR it is at a much higher risk of dying young and painfully. Ignorance is fine, it can be cured by seeing a real doctor who knows the literature or even reading it yourself, the totally independent has summaries of research written in plain English for the lay person to read without having to go through any representatives of government or big phrama these can tell you simply and clearly which treatments (including herbal and traditional treatments) work, how well, for what sort of person and to cure what. To look at this and ignore it is, I argue, a moral failing IF, this is key, you claim that your aim is to become healthy, if you want to remain spiritually pure, or support the herbal remedy industry then no error has occurred at all. But dont please pretend to want something and then act in such a way as to frustrate it.

I failed in year 9, we all fail, all the time, it's no shame to have failed, but it is important to learn from the failure and to put mental processes in place to prevent it. To condemn me for my actions in year 9, or to condemn the school board for pushing intelligent design, is unfair. People making errors of this kind are normally the last person to spot that it is an error. We all fail, we need to be shown our error, clearly and sternly yes, but in the way one corrects a child who has made an error, shouting doesn't help, it makes you defensive. (Personal note, this is something I'm very bad at, I shout at people for things a lot because I have a low tolerance for bad science, I need a lot more work on this because I fail at this stuff all the time). But I do think people should be called out on it. You really do owe it to that part of your morals that deal with the physical world to follow the course of action that is most likely to get the right result.

*I must admit confusion as to why people who like natural remedies for things so rarely use the natural remedies that have actually been shown to work. Eating an extract of ground willow bark will make your heart healthier and cure most pains, it's been shown to work and has almost no side effects, and you can buy a bottle of the stuff for about a quid, it's called aspirin.

Any comments, arguments, counter-examples, better ways of thinking about this, as ever welcomed below.

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