Not Entirely Fuzzy, Actually

One interesting and valuable current in the comments on Scott McLemee’s interview at Inside Higher Ed was the discussion triggered by Adam Kotsko’s comment:

I’m glad to see that she at least concedes the existence of more fuzzy kinds of truth at the beginning and restricts the empirical kind to science and history — too often, arguments “defending” the existence of scientific empirical truth head down the slippery slope of asserting that such truth is the only real or worthwhile kind and that anything else is mere charlatanism. There are ways of making interesting and even (validly) persuasive claims about the world that do not mimic the scientific method. It would be great if everyone could agree on that principle.

Well…that depends on what is meant by ‘mimic the scientific method,’ I would say. When people make claims of that kind it is usually defined very narrowly; perhaps as something necessarily involving either petri dishes or centrifuges. But the kinds of claims that are meant are claims that do in fact rely on rational thought and evidence; they’re not claims that are entirely untethered from, shall we say, the real world. When you look at them more closely this becomes apparent. So I was pleased when ‘we are all scientists now’ set about doing just that, by asking for ‘a precise example of a validly persuasive claim about the world that doesn’t follow something very much like the (a?) scientific method’. The answer came, ‘There is more to life than material gain. This says something about the human condition and it means more than its literal rendering gives.’ ‘We are all’ replied:

It certainly hints at (controversial) claims about the human condition, but I’m not pursuaded. How would we persuade the Wall Street hedonist driving a kickass car that there’s more to life than money and positional goods? Well, we might appeal to evidence: many people, even very rich and powerful people, find that there is more to life than material gain. Ergo…But that anecdotal claim alone cannot be persuasive, because I’m willing to bet that a carefully designed and sufficiently representative survey of a great many people will find at least a few reasonable folks who, after due consideration, think that material gain really is all they need to live a satisfying life. Are these people simply wrong? Are they morally deficient? [etc] No doubt, once we had a better idea of the correlates of variation in claims about life satisfaction in our sample, we’d be tempted to make a moral argument about character and virtue, to the effect that some sorts of life really are better than others, and these more worthy ways of life feature more than simply material gain. We might then be tempted to use this moral framework to explain the variations in our survey data. But notice that, if we followed this path in turning your pithy aphorism into a persuasive claim, we’d end up making precise philosophical arguments and sociological hypotheses in light of careful empirical research. That sounds a lot like a scientific approach to me…

Exactly. I’m always irritated by this rather unexamined idea that literary or moral or aesthetic claims are completely different from empirical or scientific claims, as opposed to being, say, more tentative, more fuzzy in parts, more reliant on guesswork and personal commitments and the like, but still not completely untethered to any rational forms of inquiry or exploration or verification or checking at all. If such claims were like that they would be of no interest, and they would be undiscussable; but they’re not, are they. When people make moral or aesthetic claims we disagree with we jump right in and argue, don’t we; we give reasons; we cite counter-examples; we may even cite studies or surveys or statistics. We mostly don’t just make stuff up from scratch out of nowhere and fling it down in a ‘take it or leave it’ manner. If we did it wouldn’t get us anywhere. We would have to talk gibberish to do that, and people would just shrug and talk about something else (so there goes your ‘validly persuasive’).

This attempted radical separation between the two kinds of truth seems to me to be quite mistaken, but it’s popular. The discussion went on, and it’s a good read.

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