Friday, June 10, 2011

Reality of "Value Free" Idoelogy

Japanese Celibate the (religious) "bon" festival

In my undergraduate days, when I was an atheist, as a sociology major I used to hear about a conflict within social scineces called "value free research." This meant that they had a value of not having values. It means they wanted research that didn't stand a chance of the taint of any bias, and values would taint it. One of the early famous epitomes of this conflict (there was a social consciousness counterpoint led by certain thinkers such as C. Wright Mills--my hero) as a string of journal debates by George Lunberg (value free) and Robert Lynd (social conscoiusness) who clashed with each other in the 1930s. One of my reasons for getting out of sociology was the odious nature of the value free set and their success in taking over modern sociology. It's not surprising that I find that same mentality in all of scinece and especially in atheism. I think that attitude is the result of a ideological approach to metaphysics which reduces reality to the bits we can perceive and thus control easily such as tangible physical matter. With that reduction comes the loss of values, which is no surprise as it is a standard move of reductionism to lose things in the reductive process, thus such as the loss of phenomena. This is really not that unknown to the popular audience, it's the real academic playing out of the Spock Macoy debate on Star Trek the original series.

On my boards I'm having an exchange with a very intelligent atheist who is a professional biologist. He's apparently from Holland. He's a real nice guy and extremely intelligent. He also embodies this value free notion and the reductionist move that loses all values and all phenomena that would support them. The discussion began with an off hand comment about animals and moral decision making. I made the statement that the assumption of their ability for same is due to reduction of moral dimension to behavior. My dialogue partner comments:

1) Who says decision making is anything more than instinct?
2) Who says animals can't make decisions?

Both of these questions need to be answered before you can make the above claim. Not so much the "who", more whether or not you are making assumptions based on your desires, rather than facts.

After discussing the concept of animal rights it turns out he's not coming from that persecution, but merely form the perspective that animals can make deicisons and since there is no basis for moral dimension any deicsion an anmial makes is as moral as any decision a human makes. He reduces all decision making to: "...a perfectly valid question I asked. What indicates to you that a decision made is anything more than a biochemical reaction? I ask that question in all sincerity." He first laid a false train which indicated that he was on about animals rights, or about the valuing of animals on a par with humans:

It isn't much of an argument to say that you possess some unique feature (decision making) over animals because you don't see your own internal experience reflected in cats or dogs. Especially not if you present this medieval attitude towards animals by calling them stupid. To me (a biologist) such a response indicates you have never really observed animals with any real attention.
How can I accept your argument, when you appear to have done very little work on the subject?
It turns out this is a false trail because he's not into animals rights.

It has nothing to do with animal rights. It is simply about observing animal behavior , ethology. Careful observation has increasingly shown us that animals are more aware than we initially thought (talk about vox populi!). The more we look, the more we see that animals are much more capable of forming logical solutions to problems presented. This goes well beyond learned behavior, it showed a process of deduction by animals. Behavior typically seen as exclusively present in humans.
Already at this point he's made two hypocritical statements. At this juncture he basis his argument upon observation of animal behavior, but earlier when I based my understanding of my own deicsion making as moral upon the observations of my own feelings, vs. the lack of evidence that dogs can thinker morally, he says: "So your experiences with dogs are a model for the entire animal kingdom?" Perhaps he's refering to the broader nature of his research, but still suffers from the same epistemological flaw as my own, the inability to read a dog's mind. Yet I was comparing to my own decision-making while he is assuming he can read the animals mind by observing the animal without comparing to experience he knows. The overall debate shaping up so far is that he seems to be assuming a value free approach that places humans on the same level as animals or even pond scum and divorces itself from values is just a priori more correct because "Again you make this distinction between the human and animal realm. Based on what? What indicates to you that we can’t extrapolate from more primative species?" Everything is leveled out by value free.

In response to my argument that values are among the basic building blocks of understanding, along with language, give us by culture he reduces this to:

So you appeal to Vox Populi? [voice of the people--appeal to popularity] That might be the difference between us, I always question the voice of the people because I know it can’t be trusted. What society as a whole accepts about mind and consciousness has never been critically examined, it just sounds nice. Like a flat earth, or the sun revolving around the earth. That which we know scientifically indicates that, contrary to popular belief, consciousness is a product of the brain.
We see already that every move he's made invovles the standard reductionist tricks. He re describes and re-labels all my arguments and experiences to make them other than I claim for them, then loses the phenomena (such as ethical valuation) in the reduction process so the phenomena of values just goes away, there's nothing to defend. Of course it's his observations that condition everything while mine are just illusory and misconceived and are there to be reduced. What is the real pay off to his position?

The argument began when I asked him to explain the statement that Christians support things they think are moral bu they don't think them through so they wind up being "destructive." In seeking to know what he's talking about it turns out his big example is feeding starving children. So how can anyone think that feeding starving children is destructive?

What I was talking about was ‘feeding a starving child’. Think about the consequences of that act. Would you call that humane? Would you call it humane to feed a child, knowing that this child will bring forth a multiple of children that will suffer even more because there is still no food?

What I was aiming at is that typical solutions are about healing wounds, rather than addressing the cause. We like healing wounds because it feels right, not because it is right. There are few who dare venture where Holmes Rolston III ventured when he wrote Feeding People versus Saving Nature?. I fully agree that it is a necessity that humanity starts to learn to address these issues rationally, until that time humanity can’t rightfully claim to be capable of discerning right and wrong.
So he's really talking Malthusian nightmare and triage. There is a rational basis to that position but there are rational solutions too. Those rational solutions do not have to involve chucking human values. Unfortunately he doesn't seem to be interested in them. I pointed out that populations in third world countries go way down when technological food production is obtained. This is because the need for a huge family assumed the need for a lot of labor on primitive farms. Make the far less primitive no need for a huge family. There are probably a lot of other solutions too. He wasn't really interested in solutions. I pointed out that there always humane solutions but that wasn't the real issue. The real point was to flog the dead horse of a value free world view.

"Again, I pick the part I’m most interested in. I could comment on everything you said, but this is something I truly do not understand. Why do you insist on emphasizing this divide you see?" What's interesting here is that he did not follow up on the humane solutions idea so that's not what he's interested in. What he is interested in is his own notion of value free research:

This is what I mean with Vox Populi. It is clearly an historically/culturally formed concept that humanity is special, separate from nature, because we have things like art and theology. Obviously there is something there, it didn’t come out of the blue, but is it really that special? Or is it just an arbitrary line? What I see, including in myself and my own behaviour, is a particular violent case of narcissism that is quite typical of Western culture. This constant desire to elevate ourselves above nature. Why? Because we were brought up to think this way. Western culture is parasitic in its attitude towards nature, not symbiotic. We value our capacity to appreciate Ingmar Bergman movies, but why is that special, when at the same type we lack the capacity to extend our ethical community beyond our selfish self?
It turns out value free is not quite value free. It's really replacing one set of values with another. All he's really doing is presenting his own predilections and dressing them up as scientific objectivity. First, look at what was said above, we see that each thing he dose say leaves unsaid a corresponding value that would make what the does say consistent. If art and culture are not really that special, which he says, what he's not saying is that what is special is his observations of a value free nature and the control he can impose upon it through the pretense of objective reduction. "The constant desire to elivate ourselves above nature" opens the door to the unspoken but implied value of elevating nature, and thus reducing humanity to the level of inhuman aspects of nature. Then he makes this flooring statment about we value art films (You know I would bring up Bergman) but why is that special when we can't extend ethics beyond selfishness. That's flooring because by "selfilsh" he doesn't mean the kind of selfishness he exhibits in pushing value free ideologies but the selfishness of feeing starving children and seeking trught through art. So in other words if we aren't reducing the value of our own species to that of pond scum then we are selfish. Of course he's altruistic in seeking to allow starving children to die. He didn't seem interested in the unselfish solutions to world hunger. He would rather let people die than reduce population growth.

the yellow dog, the only dog who can make moral decisions
because he's a Democrat

I'm sure he's not a bad guy and given the chance I'm sure he would help people. Yet he does seem to be denuding art of it's value and reducing humanity to the level of mere organisms and at war with any valuation of humanity that would connect us to any sort of transcendent truth. As an example of the values he pushes, he argues connection to nature:

There are cultures that show a symbiosis between man and nature, like Japanese Satoyama, but interestingly, that is based on a fundamentally different form of religion (culture), which emphasizes our place as a part of nature.
Really this is just another reductionism, he can't be thinking the high value the Japanese place on art, or the integral place religion has played and continues to play in their culture, and they are still extremely religious despite the misconceptions of some atheists such as Zuckerman who try to include them as "an atheist nation" they are far from that. His value free is just the imposition of a different set of values and his call for unselfish decisions is really just a call the selfish decisions he would make.

There's much more that is profoundly disturbing about his ideas. In the guise of elevating nature he actually pulls humanity down in the muck, to the extent of dis-valuing art. In his protestation about appeal to popularity what we really see there is a prime example of losing the phenomena. My argument was not merely an appeal to popularity (everyone thinks X) but to the basis culture as the constitute building blocks of understanding that give us the first principles in understanding the world; not popularity but culture! Every step of the way he's displacing the constitute blocks with his own value system through the same rational he pretends to opposes. All of this denuding of humanity in favor of nature is just so much window dressing for an ideology for an ideology that ultimately places the ideologue on a pedestal and makes his anti-human view point supreme while reducing all human values to nothing.

I'm sure this guy is not a bad person, am not saying that my approbations are automatically better than his. Yet all we have to think with is cultural constructs. Culture is language and the basis of what we understand the world to be is mediated by culture. Without adopting the cultural valuations of humanity and art we have nothing. In the pretense of objectively and rationally trading that for a "nature oriented" set of values we are merely reproducing another set f values that privileges another person's position. That approach is no less selfish and no more rational than any other. Where cultures have sought to infuse human life with nature we can and should learn from this, but there has always been a sharp dichotomy between nature and civilization. Even in a thinker like Roseau who advocated the natural approach we find this contradiction that civilization nurtures. We can hardly proceed with notions about scientific progress, born of culture, civilization and the great divide in cutting us off from nature, and [pretend that there's no divide if we just disvalue humanity and value nature. Clearly we must strive to same nature, but we are irrevocably cast adrift separated forever form life in the trees and to purse scinece at all is to reinforce the divide.

Just as nature doesn't make moral decisions, even though some animals may make decisions, they don't make moral ones, so nature does not study itself. Nature just is, it has no self awareness. We are still human, we have to live in a world we shape. The pretense of objectivity, scinece and reductionism as building a shining value free brave new world is only going to create a world in which a tiny social elite imposes decisions of ideology that profoundly effect or even end people's lives on a massive scale. We need to have the guts to recognize there is no value free research; we impose one set of values over another and the reductionists are no less value oriented than anyone else's. I would rather impose a set of moral values that lionize the human good as well as respect for nature, than to reduce humanity to "organisms" and make quality of life unbearable in the name of a pretense of getting back to nature, a nature that doesn't' give a damn weather I understand it or not. The pretense of being scientific, nustral, value free, then respecting nature, moving forward into a shinny future that doesn't fall for all out dated Christianity stuff is just the performance of another elitist ideology that seeks to feather the nest of a powerful few.

I include the link to the whole thing starting on page 3 of the thread, I don't want to create the wrong impression. I said many stupid things in that exchange and he said many smart things. I don't want my friend to feel singled out or put on the spot, but look for the comments by "Dutch."


Metacrock said...

on my boards the atheist I refer to in this post leaves this comment about the blog piece:

<<<Glancing over it I get the impression that you have not yet fully understood what I'm talking about and how I approach problems.

For instance stating: "He would rather let people die than reduce population growth." Is grossly misplaced, I never got to a point where I expressed my opinion about a possible solution. I simply set the issue aside to focus the discussion. A purely practical reason.

Similarly I would say that your conclusions about me pretending to be ‘value free’ are equally misplaced. Quite the opposite, I want to show you how my values are constructed. That science and reductionism are capable of bringing forth values. But that takes time and can’t be done in a few posts.

Most of what I wrote so far was simply aimed at seeing your response, primarily for two reasons. To try and identify how your arguments are constructed relative to mine. And to try and find the best way to explain to you my way of constructing arguments relative to yours.

I do not argue “right versus wrong” or try to convince you of my “truth”, I merely wish to explore your reasoning relative to mine. Reading Toulmin I cannot help but call myself a modern equivalent of Montaigne (although I might change my opinion once I have learned more).

Weekend Fisher said...

LOL, Meta, just looking at what he writes -- for a guy who accuses other people of narcissism, he seems very ... erm, interested in his own reflections.

You know that I have less interest than many Christians in arguing the separation of humanity from nature. In some ways modern Christianity is a caricature of what it might be, as far as acknowledging the kinship of humanity with nature and pursuing the actual flourishing (not mere preservation) of all species through designed symbiosis (beyond companion planting), etc.

Still, with all that said: humanity has a unique relationship to nature in that we pursue knowledge of it and unlock its laws. If the guy doesn't think humans are so special, it would be tempting to ask how many other primates (or non-primates) he has ever seen studying biology ...

You have your work cut out for you, my friend. :)

Take care & God bless ... or should I say, "So long, and thanks for all the fish"?
Anne / WF

Metacrock said...

That's an acute comment Fisher, and what's really funny is the guy is a professional biologist and professor of same. one would think he would see something special about his ability to study the birds and the bees, since they are not studying him.

Kristen said...

Don't his comments assume that there's something wrong with being selfish or narcissistic? The two of you are agreeing on this basic point, as far as I can see-- that humans shouldn't be selfish or narcissistic. It's what you define as selfish and narcissistic that differs.

He says that science and reductionism are capable of bringing forth values. But I don't see how they can bring about a value like, "It's wrong to be selfish/narcissistic." And yet it seems to be a value he holds. But from a purely evolutionary standpoint, I would think selfishness would be a good thing in that it tends to aid survival, whereas altruism (especially towards non-relatives or non-community members) is evolutionarily a weakness.

He also seems to be implying that there's a certain pride in humans considering themselves above the animals, and he seems to believe that this pride is also wrong. Is that because he thinks the belief that we are above the animals is misplaced-- or do I detect a value that pride in itself is wrong?