Tuesday, March 06, 2007

How many forms of understanding?

“We have more than one form of understanding. [...] The great achievements of physical science do not make it capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to the experiences of a living animal. We have no reason to dismiss moral reasoning, introspection or conceptual analysis as ways of discovering the truth just because they are not physics.”

- Thomas Nagel, as quoted in this article

Let's imagine a hypothetical situation. A friend comes to you with an excellent moral argument, perfect in every detail, which leads inevitably to the conclusion that gravity doesn't apply to her - she can, if she so wishes, walk on thin air.

What would you do? Would you encourage her to test this conclusion by walking off a skyscraper? Or would you ask that she kindly remove her head from the clouds before gravity did it for her?

No, Thomas. There's only one form of understanding that leads to truth: that which attempts at all opportunities to expose itself to the evidence. Scientific understanding, in other words. All else is shadows and dust.

There are, however, very many forms of pontificating.

2 comments:

Bill said...

A moral argument perfect in every detail would not contradict a scientific law (if they met at all). A moral argument against suicide would entail not doing things that would kill you. You're arguing a fallacy.

Lifewish said...

A moral argument perfect in every detail would not contradict a scientific law (if they met at all).

That was more or less my point: the connection between moral arguments and objective reality is entirely one-way, with reality providing context for morality. The "moral anti-gravity" example is an illustration of how daft the alternative would be.

The conclusion I draw is that moral arguments can only be considered "a way of discovering the truth" if "truth" is redefined to include "opinion". I would consider such a redefinition to be a fairly good example of pontificating.