Common preferences are possible

There are many situations in which two or more people who intend cooperate on some issue disagree on what to do. The standard approach to this is to conflate two different kinds of situations under the word “compromise”. Compromise is sometimes used to mean that both of the people involved in the disagreement end up adopting an idea they deem worse than their original preference, or an idea that has some features that are worse than the original preference. This is stupid for two reasons. First, it doesn’t solve problems that the people involved have with the new solution. Second, whatever solution they end up adopting is going to be awful on its own terms because it is not optimised to solve any particular problem.

The other kind of deal that people often call a compromise is the situation where the people involved change their preferences so that they agree about what to do and neither of them has any criticism of the new course of action. This does not have either of the problems of the first meaning of compromise given above, so it ought to be called something different. Since it is a preference the people involved have in common let’s call it a common preference (CP).

A criticism may be some explicit idea about something that is wrong with the proposed solution. In that case, you might come up with a new variant of the current idea that addresses the criticism. Or you might find that you have to throw the idea out and try to come up with something different in the light of the knowledge that your previous approach didn’t work.

A person may also criticise a solution by saying he has a feeling he doesn’t like. An emotion is the result of inexplicit traditional knowledge. It’s a bad idea to disregard this knowledge without replacing it. Ways to get past such a problem may include asking questions like “Why do I feel bad about this? Is there a way to modify my actions so you don’t feel bad about them? If I can’t think of a way to modify my actions so I feel good about them why is that the case?” For more see Elliot Temple’s essay about emotions.

The fact that two different people happened to be involved isn’t of any particular significance. A single person can have two priorities that he thinks are in conflict. So a common preference ought to be viewed as reconciling two or more sets of ideas about what to do rather than two people.

You might think this all sounds very grand but you’re a busy person, or you’re lazy or whatever. I can’t find a CP for every problem. But there is no particular reason to think that CPs are hard or impossible to find. If you don’t have to do something immediately you can carefully discuss options and try to come up with new options. If you run out of time you should pick among the uncriticised options in some way that everyone agrees with other than discussing all their merits or problems. For example, if you have two ideas left you might ask if people object to deciding between them by flipping a coin if nobody involved objects to deciding that way. The results may not be very good, but that’s what you should expect if you make decisions sloppily so it would be a bad idea to get upset about it. You can also exclude some options just because you don’t have time to implement them since the criterion for picking the action is that you want to try to implement it.

In 2002, David Deutsch wrote:

[T]he finding of a common preference does not entail finding the solution to any particular problem.
The economy does not require infinite creativity to grow. Particular enterprises fail all the time. Particular inefficiencies may remain unimproved for long periods. The economy as a whole may have brief hitches where mistakes have been made and have to be undone; but if it stagnates to the extent of failing to innovate, there is a reason. It’s not just ‘one of those things’. The reason has nothing to do with there being a glut of nautiluses on the market, but is invariably caused by someone (usually governments, but in primitive societies also parents) forcibly preventing people from responding to market forces. Stagnation is not a natural state in a capitalist economy; it has to be caused by force.
Science does not require infinite creativity to make new discoveries. Particular lines of research fail all the time but where science as a whole has ceased to innovate it is never because the whole scientific community has turned its attention to the nautilus but invariably because someone (governments and/or parents) has forcibly prevented people from behaving according to the canons of scientific rationality.
An individual personality does not require infinite creativity to grow. Particular a priori wants go unmet all the time, and large projects also fail and sometimes a person has a major life setback. But if they get stuck to the extent of failing to innovate it is not because they have spontaneously wandered into a state where their head resembles a nautilus but because someone has forcibly thwarted them once (or usually a thousand times) too often.

[P]roblems can be continually solved without infinite creativity, without perfect rationality, and without relying on any particular problem being solved by any particular time. And that is sufficient for — in fact it is what *constitutes* — economic growth, scientific progress, and human happiness.

I think there’s a little more to be said about this. People are not born knowing standards of rationality. And indeed there isn’t a closed list of such standards. New problems and ideas bring up new opportunities to fool yourself. But if the only problem was that people didn’t know the standards they could just invent and try stuff as they go along. So failures of rationality are a result of some knowledge that blocks the invention and testing of new ideas including standards of rationality.

Some of instances of such knowledge may be inexplicit. Parents coercing their children usually don’t have some explicit idea about why they’re doing it. They just think that little Jimmy should brush his teeth and that the way to get him to do that is to make him brush his teeth. This might prevent the child from finding better ways to deal with his teeth, or ways to enjoy tooth brushing or whatever.

Other instances of progress blocking knowledge are explicit. Witness the millions of words used by philosophers trying to explain how to justify ideas (show they are true, or probably true, or good). Trying to justify an idea can entrench it instead of allowing error correction. Also, since justification doesn’t work the argument that these philosophers give is not true as it is stated. So justificationism makes ideas less clear and harder to criticise since you have to try to reconstruct what the argument should be from what was written. And the justification may hide the absence of any substantive argument.

CPs are possible provided you don’t adopt ideas that prevent error correction.

Denying Moral Conflict and Responsibility Part 3: Examples

In part 1, I discussed the idea of denying moral conflict and moral responsibility. Morality is about how to make decisions. Moral conflict is where people want to enact moral ideas that are incompatible with one another. Moral responsibility meas that a person can and should exercise his judgement about what he will do and in particular about dumping bad ideas and developing better ideas. Denying moral conflict means denying that there is a moral disagreement in situations where such a disagreement exists. Denying moral responsibility means denying that you can and should change your bad ideas and actions. There are many institutions and ideologies in the West that seem dedicated to helping people to deny moral conflict and moral responsibility, as I shall now explain.

Theism and Atheism

Both theists and atheists often say that the existence of god is required for objective morality. In reality, the existence of god is incompatible with morality being objective and does nothing at all to explain right and wrong.

There are two possibilities, both of which are fatal to theistic explanations of morality. (1) God invented morality on a whim, in which case we might as well just say that shit happens and dispense with god. (2) God invented morality for some reason, e.g. – because acting in some ways is better for us medically than acting in other ways. (I am not advocating this standard, just using it as an illustration.) But then we might as well just say that we should act morally because of that reason, e.g. – we should act morally because doing so will be better for us medically than acting otherwise.

There is another weakness of the typical theistic explanation of morality. Morality has been laid down once and for all by god, so then how can it be the case that some people are getting it wrong? There can’t actually be dispute about what’s and what’s bad because god has told us what’s good and what’s bad. So there can be no moral conflicts since there cannot be any competing moral ideas. Likewise you’re not really responsible for anything bad you do because all your misdeeds are a result of god making some mistake in morality itself or in conveying morality to you.

Many atheists agree with theists that there can’t be objective morality without god and just think that morality isn’t objective. in this case, there are no moral conflicts nor any moral responsibility. You can’t have conflicts about how to harvest all the green cheese on the moon because there is no green cheese on the moon. Likewise, amoral atheists don’t think there can be substantive disagreement about morality. Nor can you be responsible for breaking moral standard when no such standards exist.

Many atheists who like to talk about morality have a moral theory that is identical in substance to the theistic moral theory. Instead of god dictating morality, evolution dictates it, or it is somehow derived from observation of what makes people happy. The important point is that morality is just a set of rules dictated by some authority which you are bound to follow no matter how painful or boring it makes your life. This pain and boredom is not a result of conflicting moral standards, nor could it be resolved by critical discussion. Rather, it is just a result of your pathetic primate brain failing to work properly or something like that. And since your pathetic primate brain is at fault, you are not responsible for the results.


One of the worst and one of the most pervasive ways to evade moral conflict and moral responsibility is psychiatry. Almost everybody seems to regard psychiatry and the idea of mental illness as benevolent. The idea of mental illness is to blame behaviour you don’t like on an illness instead of ideas. This means the person with the ideas isn’t reponsible for them and he doesn’t really disagree with you, he’s just ill. But the idea of mental illness is wrong.

The most straightforward version of the idea is that some behaviours are a result of some subtle injury or physiological problem in the brain. These illnesses are described in terms of behaviour and their diagnostic criteria specifically rule out any known change in the structure or chemistry of the brain as a cause.

The idea that some specific behaviour can be caused by a brain injury or physiological problem makes no sense. An injury just damages or destroys tissue, a physiological problem just makes the tissue function in a substandard way. To say that this causes particular behaviour suggests that brain injuries regularly fiddle about with the details of a person’s brain in such a way as to make it do unwelcome stuff. But no injury and no chemical contains knowledge about what people consider right and wrong or polite or impolite or welcome or unwelcome. So the idea that bad behaviour is caused by a brain injury is like saying your computer must be faulty because you don’t like one of the games installed on it.

Some psychiatrists seem to sense that this is a bit of a reach. So they vague their position up to evade criticism. The brain problem doesn’t cause bad behaviour, it just influences people to behave badly. This idea has the same problem as the idea that the brain problem simply causes unwelcome behaviour. How does the injury know about cultural standards? A brain problem might cause a problem in a person’s life that he interprets and tries to solve in a way other people don’t like. For example, he might lose the ability to speak as a result of a stroke. He might then interpret situations in which people don’t provide him with what he wants as a deliberate attempt to annoy him or harm him and get angry. But his bad behaviour is not caused by the brain injury. He engages in that behaviour because he acts on an idea about what other people are doing and how he should act toward them.

So then why do people believe in mental illness?

The behaviours that result in a person being diagnosed as mentally ill are invariably behaviours that somebody finds unpleasant or distressing or inconvenient in some other way. If a young woman tries to starve herself to death, this may distress her parents who call for psychiatrist who diagnoses her with anorexia nervosa. If a person does not socialise as his parents want him to, they may get him diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. If a person lives on the streets and finds that he no longer likes that lifestyle, he may draw the attention of the authorities by acting crazy, making threats to random people on the street or talking nonsense, say. He might then get diagnosed with schizophrenia. The authorities might hospitalise him for a while, in a building with lighting, heating and free food. This place may also have some bad features like forced drugging, but he might prefer forced drugging to being cold. Or they might give him benefits provided that he agrees to take particular drugs to control his “condition”.

In and of itself bad behaviour doesn’t explain the mental illness idea. If somebody steals a car we may not like his behaviour but few people would say he is mentally ill. We would just lock up a car thief or stop associating with him or something like that. But in the examples above the people who push for a mental illness diagnosis have a moral conflict. The parents of an anorexic teen don’t want her to starve but they also don’t want to end their association with her. They also don’t want to explicitly say that they want to punish her. Rather, they want to stop her behaviour although they don’t understand her reasons and don’t want to understand them. Psychiatrists help them to solve that problem. She’s mentally ill and so there is nothing to understand. The treatment consists of the patient being made to listen to advice and take drugs. This treatment can be imposed without her consent and so if she stubbornly refuses to acknowledge her illness then she will be punished by being forced into treatment.

A homeless person may pose a different problem. Namely, the welfare state is based on the idea that nobody should be allowed to fail, or to live in a way that a middle class person would dislike. So if a person who lives on the streets draws attention to himself then he may be able to get some housing for a while. But this person may have habits the state finds unwelcome in which case he must be made to give up those habits. The government doesn’t want to be seen to punish him and mental illness provides a handy excuse for imprisonment and/or forced drugging without calling it punishment.

The welfare state

The welfare state is another institution that obscures and denigrates moral conflict and moral responsibility.

The welfare state involves the government interfering in the lives of individuals to make sure they get what they supposedly need. Money is taken from taxpayers without asking for their consent and given to others to whom they may not want to give it. Welfare benefits may go to drug addicts, or people have made stupid choices like having five children before they are twenty. A person can get to be an adult without being able to persuade anybody to pay him for anything he is willing to tolerate doing and such a person may end up on welfare. Since tax money goes to any given welfare recipient regardless of whether any taxpayer would choose to pay that person, disagreements about who should be given money are not easily addressed.

The idea behind the welfare state also negates moral responsibility. The idea is that a person should not actually pay the price for any damn fool thing he does. And if you something that harms somebody else then the government may pay for it. So for a wide range of stupid things you do you’re not responsible for harming anybody.

The result of this is that once in a while the government does something it calls welfare reform. The politicians think people are sick of paying for those on welfare and so do something to clear some of them from the welfare rolls. Such people are often on the rolls as a result of a long series of mistakes and have never had any feedback from reality that might have prompted them to decide to change for the better.


What can we do about all of these bad ideas and institutions? Ultimately, all of these ideas or institutions should be discarded. I don’t know how to do this. Nor does anybody else or they wouldn’t exist. The first step towards a solution is to stop denying the problem and try to explain good philosophy to people. The second step is that the people involved have to do something about these problems for themselves. They have to come up with better ways of living that don’t involve sabotaging their ability to solve problems.

Moral Conflict and Responsibility 2: Problems and Solutions

I have explained that people sometimes want to pretend that moral conflicts and moral responsibility don’t exist. In Part 3 I will give a few examples of major institutions that are built on such denial. But before I do that I should explain why people like this denial and how their ideas need to change in order to solve it.

Morality vs Sacrifice

The standard view of morality is that it consists of grim commands that demand sacrifice. People don’t often explicitly say this, but it is the consequence of every occasion on which a parent says to a child: “Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do.” This means that some problems can’t be solved so there is no point in trying. Moral conflicts will often lead to suffering and so ignoring them is the best policy, which is what people do in a lot of cases.

What is  the rational alternative? Suppose you are in a situation in which the known options seem grim. The solution to such a problem is to come up with new options that you want to do. The basic technique is to propose solutions to the problem and keep criticising them until there is only one left. There are many ways of doing this, so many that it is impossible to list them, not least because some of them haven’t been invented yet. The ultimate limits to your options are just that you can’t do anything that is forbidden by the laws of nature, i.e. physics, biology, epistemology and that sort of thing. And these laws don’t care about whether you like your life. They will not aid you in finding and doing stuff that interests you, but they won’t stop you either.

One way to solve the problem was suggested by Elliot Temple. You have some problem P and some set of requirements for a solution that seem to contradict one another. You ask “given that these ideas contradict one another what should I do?” There are two options. There may be some set of constraints on how to solve the problem such that the ideas don’t contradict one another given those constraints. For example, Newtonian gravity and general relativity contradict one another, but they both agree that if you are standing on Earth and you throw a stone so that it leaves your hand at a speed of one metre per second upward, it will hit the ground again. Every set of constraints makes the problem simpler until you either reach a solution or find that you can’t reconcile the requirements. At that point you throw one of them out and start again with the new smaller set of requirements.

A slightly more complicated way to deal with the problem is to think about whether you’re misunderstanding the situation in a way that prevents you from considering some viable options. If you have a boring job you might decide that you should acquire a new skill so you can do a more interesting job. For example, you might think about learning about Arduinos, which are very cheap and simple computers which come without a keyboard and monitor and so on. If you buy and Arduino and the appropriate accessories you can use it to make an infrared proximity sensor or you could use it to control motors and make a small robot. By doing such projects you could learn electronics and programming which could help you get a better job. And you might look at your current job in a new way by thinking about whether specific tasks could be automated with a suitable robot. My point isn’t that this specific suggestion will suit you, just there is a lot of stuff you don’t know about that you might find good.

Solving problems involves admitting there is a conflict about what you should do, and then taking steps to solve it yourself. Obscuring moral conflicts and denying personal responsibility is incompatible with doing much problem solving. If you don’t explicitly look for conflicts and try to resolve them then you will only do it very slowly and almost entirely by accident, which is a recipe for disaster.

By contrast, the idea that you have to do stuff you don’t want to implies that some problems can’t be solved and some objections to ideas should be ignored. If you don’t want to do something that is an objection to doing it, the idea that you have to do it even if you don’t want to implies that the objection should be ignored. This is irrational because it involves ignoring flaws in ideas.


Some people might object that some stuff has to be done that nobody likes doing, like cleaning toilets. I think there are several things you can say in reply to this. Suppose that if you don’t particularly mind a toilet that somebody else thinks of as too dirty. Why should you have to clean a toilet when you don’t find it too dirty? If the other person wants the toilet cleaner why doesn’t he clean it?

Also, you can hire people to clean a toilet for you, so even if the toilet is too dirty it doesn’t follow that you have to clean it. But what about the people who are cleaning the toilet for you? Well, if they don’t mind cleaning toilets, in which case it’s all gravy. If they dislike cleaning toilets, then they ought not to offer toilet cleaning services and the fact that they do so isn’t your fault.

And there is no reason to think it would be impossible to invent a toilet cleaning robot. When such a robot becomes cheap nobody will ever have to clean a toilet again.

But what about disadvantaged group X? (Poor people, women, gays, gypsies, midgets, welfare recipients, people with debilitating diseases and so on.) There are a few things to say about this. First, if you want to help some group go offer your help to them. Second, if you don’t want to help them why should you? Is it necessary that you should do stuff you don’t want to because some other people have problems? If so then everybody should be held hostage to the least competent people. Also, what is the standard by which one person should be judged more disadvantaged than another? And why does that determine the order in which their problems should be solved? Shouldn’t you solve a problem when you come up with a solution? And how much help are you going to be to a person if you don’t understand his problems and you aren’t interested in them? Also, this whole “help group X” idea is collectivist, it treats every member of group X as if they are the same. Also, the best solution to some specific problem might be for a person to solve it himself without outside help so he can learn better problem-solving skills.

Next, some examples of conflict and responsibility denial.

Denying Moral Conflict and Responsibility Part 1: The Problem

People often deny the existence of moral conflicts and moral responsibility. If there are genuine moral conflicts and it matters what side you pick then you have a responsibility that you wouldn’t have if no such conflicts exist. Most people hate responsibility like poison and so hate the idea of moral conflicts too. This post is very different from standard positions on morality and moral conflicts so I will start by explaining what I’m writing about before giving examples.

Morality is about how to make decisions. Morality doesn’t dictate exactly what you should do: it restricts your options. So morality may not say that you should study physics, but it does say you shouldn’t commit murder.

People often use the term morality just for making some subset of decisions and say those are the only decisions for which there are restrictions on how you should make decisions. Some people seem to limit it to being about sex or relationship stuff. Others seem to limit it to how to deal with other people. This is a very bad idea. Suppose that we restrict morality to relationship stuff. Then we have a problem. Suppose you’re a scientist working late at night in a lab. You could start a new experiment or you could go home and have a romantic dinner with your girlfriend. If this decision is totally aribtary then really that means there are no objective rules for dealing with your girlfriend because you can always put off or change anything you planned to do to accomodate your research. I could do the same by just combining anything where a person there is objective morality with something else where he claims there are no restrictions on how you should make decisions. Either morality is objective on every issue, or it is not objective at all.

A moral conflict is where an attempt is made to enact two or more incompatible ideas about how to make decisions. These ideas might be enacted by different people, e.g. – before the American Civil War many people in the US wanted to enact slavery and some other wanted to stop them. But a person can also have an internal moral conflict, e.g. – some people prefer homosexual sex but think they ought to prefer heterosexual sex.

Moral responsibility means that you can and should develop a position in any moral conflict in which you are involved. Some people want to spank their children, others do not. (Just to be clear, I think spanking is evil. Below I reproduce some excuses a parent might give for hitting a person who is half her size and totally dependent on her for his survival. I consider these arguments pathetic excuses for barbarism.) If you hang around people who smack their children and you don’t oppose what they are doing they and their child may assume that you approve. The child doesn’t want to be spanked, the parent wants to spank him so there is a moral conflict. You have chosen to get involved in the lives of such people, so you put yourself in the position of participating in that moral conflict. Nobody else can make the decision for you of whether you will approve of spanking or not. And whether you show signs of approval or disapproval may matter. A child might be encouraged to think that the smacking is wrong if you stand up against it. Or a parent may begin to doubt that smacking is a good idea if you explain why you oppose it. You might say that the whole point of spanking is to deliberately inflict pain on the child. This can’t help the child learn because the pain will not give him any way to enact whatever the parent is proposing. And in any case, the parent doesn’t have any way to guarantee that he is right or probably right, so the parent might be preventing the child from enacting a position that is better than the parent’s position.

And if you favour the use of physical violence as a means of dealing with children (i.e. spanking), that, too, is important. Whatever reason you give will have implications beyond those that you want it to have. For example, if you say smacking is necessary because children don’t know a lot then it is legitimate to use assault against any ignorant adult too. If you say it is necessary because children have less well developed brains than adults and can’t learn certain things then you have another problem. For a start, the spanking policy makes absolutely no sense if the child can’t learn because nothing you do to the child will make him change his behaviour. So then you are committed to defending an inconsistent position, i.e. – you are committed to a policy of ignoring criticism and have severely damaged your ability to learn.

Many people do take inconsistent positions and such a position can only be maintained by having a way to disable criticism of that position.

One way of doing this is to deny the existence of moral conflicts. So in the spanking example above, the apologist for spanking might say that there is no moral disagreement involved. the child doesn’t really disagree with the spanking policy, he just seems to be disagreeing. The pro-spanker might say that the child will thank the parent for spanking him later and so really the parent and child agree. This makes no sense since even if the child comes to think later that the spanking was good at the time he didn’t agree and said so. And indeed the whole point of giving the spanking is precisely the child disagrees with it and finds it unpleasant. The idea that he actually agrees later is also dubious. If the child states that he doesn’t agree with the spanking after it is given the parent might spank him again, so the child might just be agreeing to avoid being spanked.

Another way to try to disable criticism is to deny that you are responsible for something you do or say. You might say that you have to hang around with spankers because they are your family, say. And since you have to get along with them you can’t say that you think spanking is bad. But in reality, there is nobody with a gun to your head making you hang around with your family or express approval for spanking. You could decide not to deal with your family, or you could decide to tell them you don’t approve of spanking. If you don’t do either of those things, you are reponsible.

You might hope that this is limited to a few minor faults in some people. But this idea is an evasion in and of itself. An idea or action is either problematic or unproblematic. If it is problematic you should replace it with a better set of ideas or actions.

Part 2 is about why people deny moral conflicts and responsibility and how to solve them. Part 3 is about some common examples of denying moral conflicts and responsibility.

Pigliucci vs Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson said some critical stuff about philosophy on a podcast and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci decided to criticise Tyson’s remarks. I think some philosophy is good but the vast bulk is trash, and Pigliucci’s article is an example of such trash. In the first paragraph we get an example of what is wrong with the article:

But in his case the offense is particularly egregious, for two reasons: first, because he is a highly visible science communicator, and second, because I told him not to, several times.

Pigliucci told him not to say bad stuff about philosophy. So what? Why should the fact that you in particular gave him an order mean he should follow that order? This isn’t an argument, but Pigliucci posts it as if it is an argument. Also, he told Tyson to “respect my philosophah!” several times and it didn’t work but he didn’t figure out that just telling him to shut up was a crap argument. Witness Pigliucci’s awesome philosophical talent!

He quotes Tyson making a number of criticisms of philosophy, most of which are correct criticisms of philosophy as practised by acadamic philosophers. A few of the highlights:

My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, “What are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?”

 How do you define “clapping”? All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas. 

This is essentialism, which was refuted by Karl Popper, but the vast bulk of philosophers don’t seem to have noticed. I don’t think Tysoon understands this very well but he is right to point out that it’s a bad idea. Tyson makes another point:

And when you do that, don’t derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this.

Pigliucci made an argument from authority at the start of the article, but Tyson doesn’t fall into this trap. He doesn’t think students should accept stuff just because philosophy professors tell them to accept it.

Pigliucci quotes more stuff by Tyson:

Up until early 20th century philosophers had material contributions to make to the physical sciences. Pretty much after quantum mechanics, remember the philosopher is the would be scientist but without a laboratory, right? And so what happens is, the 1920s come in, we learn about the expanding universe in the same decade as we learn about quantum physics, each of which falls so far out of what you can deduce from your armchair that the whole community of philosophers that previously had added materially to the thinking of the physical scientists was rendered essentially obsolete, and that point, and I have yet to see a contribution — this will get me in trouble with all manner of philosophers — but call me later and correct me if you think I’ve missed somebody here.

The main role philosophers have played in the history of quantum mechanics is destructive. Neils Bohr interpreted Kant as saying that classical physics was some sort of necessary condition for knowledge and so quantum physics sometimes doesn’t apply, hence the Copenhagen interpretation. Who solved the problem of understanding quantum mechanics properly? The lion’s share of the credit has to go to Hugh Everett, who was a physicist not a philosopher. David Deutsch has elaborated a lot on Everett but he too is a physicist by training not a philosopher. Some philosophers have produced glosses on Everett, such as David Wallace. So Tyson is basically right about this issue.

Then we come to Pigliucci’s apology for philosophy:

You and a number of your colleagues keep asking what philosophy (of science in particular) has done for science lately. There are two answers here: First, much philosophy of science is simply not concerned with advancing science, which means that it is a category mistake (a useful philosophical concept [11]) to ask why it didn’t. The main objective of philosophy of science is to understand how science works and, when it fails to work (which it does occasionally), why this was the case. It is epistemology applied to the scientific enterprise.

The vast bulk of philosophers of science have rejected good epistemology. Karl Popper solved many problems in epistemology and philosophy of science and philosophers have been ignoring or misrepresenting his position. As an example of this I offer you Pigliucci himself. Two years ago I noticed that Pigliucci had posted a video in which he misrepresented Karl Popper. I pointed out his mistake in a video that I posted as a reply to the video containing the misrepresentation, providing detailed descriptions of Popper’s position and the places in his work where he answered all of the objections Pigliucci had in his video. Since I tried to post my video as a reply, Pigliucci is aware of its existence as he would have been notified of it. He hasn’t refuted my points, he hasn’t taken his mistaken video down.

What Tyson has said about philosophy is largely an accurate description of academic philosophers. I am not surprised that Pigliucci has not maged to change his mind about philosophy. There is good philosophy of science, from people like Popper and David Deutsch, who I think Tyson should read.

Pusey and all that jazz

In this post I’m going to present some philosophical dialogues to help explain what’s wrong with some current debates about quantum mechanics.

Philosophical Dialogue 1: The Right Argument

Scene: the living room of John’s house, where John is sitting at his computer. Jane enters.

Jane: This house does not exist.

John looks around, he seems appropriately puzzled.

John: Why do you say that?

Jane: I admit that the idea that this house exists can be used to do calculations of things like air currents, but it doesn’t actually exist, it’s just a rule for computing temperature and air currents.

John: That’s dumb. All you’re doing is taking the idea that the house does exist relabelling part of it as not existing. What you’re saying just makes the explanation of the air currents and temperature more complicated and less clear.

Jane: Oh, this metaphysical fantasy that the house actually exists is just complete hogwash, it’s not the sort of thing with which I, as a practical person, can possibly be expected to believe.

John: Your incredulity is not an argument. Kindly go away you silly person.

Philosophical Dialogue 2: The Wrong Argument

Scene: the living room of John’s house, where John is sitting at his computer. Jane enters.

Jane: This house does not exist.

John looks around, he seems appropriately puzzled.

John: Why do you say that?

Jane: I admit that the idea that this house exists can be used to do calculations of things like air currents, but it doesn’t actually exist, it’s just a rule for computing temperature and air currents.

John: But when I do experiments I find that the house does exist.

Jane: No you don’t. You just find that the air currents and temperature can be predicted with the house formulae, which are just tools for calculation.

John: Oh yeah. Well, I’ll prove it by coming up with a great experiment to test your idea. An experiment that will trash your idea forever.

Jane: So what?


The statistical interpretation of quantum mechanics is the idea that quantum mechanics is just a set of formulae for calculating probability. The appropriate response to this is to say something similar to what John said in the first dialogue. A few years ago, Pusey et al proposed an experiment that they claimed would test the statistical interpretation of quantum mechanics. This is analogous to what John said in the second dialogue. Pusey et al are wrong, not because the statistical interpretation is right but because they give it too much credit. The statistical interpretation is complete garbage and cannot be tested by any conceivable experiment because it says nothing about anything. The statistical interpretation may or may not lead people into making some mistakes when doing calculations, but it is mistaken about physics and epistemology.

Physics is about what exists in reality. It is not about formulae for calculating stuff. The formulae are useful for testing ideas about what exists in reality and they may also have technological applications. But in both applications it is important to keep your eye on the underlying physical reality so you understand what you’re doing with the formulae. If you don’t keep your eyes on the prize you will end up making epistemological and technological mistakes.

To understand better what quantum mechanics says about reality read the structure of the multiverse, The Fabric of Reality and The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch.

Sam Harris, Popper and Morality

Sam Harris wrote a book called The Moral Landscape (TML), which is about a secular moral philosophy. It sucks. I’m going to contrast his position with Popper’s, which also has some flaws.

Harris claims that we should accept the idea that morality is about the well-being of sentient creatures and depends on “events in the world and states in the human brain” (p. 5). He then claims that if we accept this idea philosophers who claim you can’t derive an ought from an is have missed the point.

Chapter 5 of The Open Society and Its Enemies pdf, Kindle is about why Popper considers it impossible to derive values from facts. Different people can see the same facts and come to different moral judgements and so morality can’t be derived from facts. This is correct as it stands but there is more interesting stuff in the notes.

OSE Chapter 5 Note 18

The hope of getting some argument or theory to share our responsibilities is, I believe, one of the basic motives of ‘scientific’ ethics. ‘Scientific’ ethics is in its absolute barrenness one of the most amazing of social phenomena. What does it aim at? At telling us what we ought to do, i.e. at constructing a code of norms upon a scientific basis, so that we need only look up the index of the code if we are faced with a difficult moral decision? This clearly would be absurd; quite apart from the fact that if it could be achieved, it would destroy all personal responsibility and therefore all ethics.

Popper claims scientific ethics is absurd but doesn’t explain why. I think the problem is that if you claimed to have a scientific derivation of morality that wouldn’t get you anywhere because that just raises questions that can’t be answered by your theory. Are you doing the science correctly? And why would it be right to judge this issue using science? And what counts as science in the first place and why? Also progress would be impossible if it were true. Progress involves inventing new ideas that won’t be on the approved list because those ideas and the practices required to criticise and understand them don’t exist yet. So if there is such a list then all progress of any kind will have to end.

Or would it give scientific criteria of the truth and falsity of moral judgements, i.e. of judgements involving such terms as ‘good’ or ‘bad’? But it is clear that moral judgements are absolutely irrelevant. Only a scandalmonger is interested in judging people or their actions; ‘judge not’ appears to some of us one of the fundamental and much too little appreciated laws of humanitarian ethics. (We may have to disarm and to imprison a criminal in order to prevent him from repeating his crimes, but too much of moral judgement and especially of moral indignation is always a sign of hypocrisy and pharisaism.) Thus an ethics of moral judgements would be not only irrelevant but indeed an immoral affair. The all-importance of moral problems rests, of course, on the fact that we can act with intelligent foresight, and that we can ask ourselves what our aims ought to be, i.e. how we ought to act.

This seems a bit muddled. Are we supposed to judge the criminal’s actions or not? I would say if we’re going to lock people up we should have made sure to judge their actions bad enough that we want to prevent him from acting that way by force.

Popper talks of “too much” moral judgement. I think this refers to something like a real problem but the problem is people making moral condemnations without understanding the issues or the situation the person in question faced. In other words, it’s not a problem of moral judgement but a problem of lack of judgement: that is, a lack of carefully considering the problems involved.

An example of not understanding more problems: many people in the UK say the US ought obviously to ban guns to stop mass shootings at cinemas and that sort of thing. Those people fail to understand the context. It is perfectly possible to use a gun properly, i.e. – don’t shoot people, or only shoot them in self defence. So if you ban guns you deprive people of an item that can be used in a legitimate way, including defending people from being shot up at a cinema. This is a bad idea. There are other relevant moral issues too.

Nearly all moral philosophers who have dealt with the problem of how we ought to act (with the possible exception of Kant) have tried to answer it either by reference to ‘human nature’ (as did even Kant, when he referred to human reason) or to the nature of ‘the good’. The first of these ways leads nowhere, since all actions possible to us are founded upon ‘human nature’, so that the problem of ethics could also be put by asking which elements in human nature I ought to approve and to develop, and which sides I ought to suppress or to control. But the second of these ways also leads nowhere; for given an analysis of ‘the good’ in form of a sentence like: ‘The good is such and such’ for ‘such and such is good’), we would always have to ask: What about it? Why should this concern me? Only if the word ‘good’ is used in an ethical sense, i.e. only if it is used to mean ‘that which I ought to do’, could I derive from the information ‘x is good’ the conclusion that I ought to do x. In other words, if the word ‘good’ is to have any ethical significance at all, it must be defined as ‘that which I (or we) ought to do (or to promote)’. But if it is so defined, then its whole meaning is exhausted by the defining phrase, and it can in every context be replaced by this phrase, i.e. the introduction of the term ‘good’ cannot materially contribute to our problem. (Cp. also note 49 (3) to chapter 11.)

Note 49(3) to Chapter 11 of OSE:

Essentialism and the theory of definition have led to an amazing development in Ethics. The development is one of increasing abstraction and loss of touch with the basis of all ethics—the practical moral problems, to be decided by us here and now. It leads first to the general question, ‘What is good?’ or ‘What is the Good?’; next to ‘What does “Good” mean?’ and next to ‘Can the problem “What does ‘Good’ mean?” be answered?’ or ‘Can “good” be defined?’ G. E. Moore, who raised this last problem in his Principia Ethica, was certainly right in insisting that ‘good’ in the moral sense cannot be defined in ‘naturalistic’ terms. For, indeed, if we could, it would mean something like ‘bitter’ or ‘sweet’ or ‘green’ or ‘red’; and it would be utterly irrelevant from the point of view of morality. Just as we need not attain the bitter, or the sweet, etc., there would be no reason to take any moral interest in a naturalistic ‘good’. But although Moore was right in what is perhaps justly considered his main point, it may be held that an analysis of good or of any other concept or essence can in no way contribute to an ethical theory which bears upon the only relevant basis of all ethics, the immediate moral problem that must be solved here and now. Such an analysis can lead only to the substitution of a verbal problem for a moral one.

The idea that morality is about “the immediate moral problem that must be solved here and now” is at best a bad formulation. You need moral principles to judge what you should do in a particular situation because otherwise all you have is a pile of competing claims and no way to sort them out. The best construction I can put on what Popper said here is that each situation has some unique aspects and we have to think on our feet to apply moral principles to that situation and no definition of the good could contribute to such thought. Presumably that’s what he meant but he didn’t state it clearly.

In TML Sam Harris claims that morality can be derived from facts about human wellbeing and we can understand those facts by looking at how the brain lights up when a person is happy. This invokes all of the bad ideas Popper criticised above. He defines morality as being about wellbeing but this just evades the question of what counts as wellbeing and why. And why is the way a person’s brain lights up the relevant issue? Harris claims that this is because thought is instantiated in the brain, but by that logic the vast bulk of knowledge is about paper or electronic information storage devices since most knowledge is instantiated in those forms.

At any particular time you’re going to have some areas of your life you find unsatisfactory. To make your life better you have to find out why these aspects of your life are unsatisfactory and solve the relevant problems. That’s an epistemological problem, which has nothing to do with brain chemistry.

Indeed, if a person is solving problems then his brain chemistry has to be explained in terms of the morality of how to solve problems. He will be thinking about what is required by epistemology (and other stuff too, like physics or economics or aesthetics or whatever) and his brain chemistry will instantiate the relevant ideas.

Most of TML is spent discussing moral issues without tying them to brain states or explaining them in terms of brain states in any substantive way. Rather, the discussion of brain states gets in the way of openly discussing moral standards in some cases. For example, on p. 94 he claims that looking at the brains might help us understand whether we should choose to throw one person in the path of a moving train to save five more. If the best thing you can think of to do involves shoving somebody under a train you ought to consider that you don’t actually understand the problem too well and shoving somebody under a train under those circumstances would be stupid or criminal.

And as I noted in discussing Popper’s objection to scientific ethics above, if there was some particular scientific theory that provided the answers to all ethical questions, then progress would be impossible. It’s not clear to me how Sam Harris would avoid this. Once we understand how the brain works do we understand all of morality? If so, then all progress will end when that happens.

Just one final note, I think TML is crap not just because it’s so badly wrong but because there is so much in it that is silly. There are so many points where Harris should have said “okay, there’s something badly wrong here, I’m writing stuff that’s just complete crap.” Take, as an example, the bit on p. 71 where he discusses Parfit. According to Parfit if we were to aggregate utility then it might be better to have one person who is really happy to a world where there are billions of people who are just a little bit happy. But we have to aggregate utility, claims Harris, so we have to think about such “paradoxes”. You don’t have to think about aggregation. You have to think about solving problems. If you solve a problem you make things better. If you don’t solve problems you don’t make things better. End of story. And how could you possibly be put in the position of making a decision between the sorts of scenarios Parfit discusses? How could you be in a position to decide whether there will be one person who is very happy or billions who are slightly less happy? You would either have to be a mass murderer or a tyrant who controls whether people get to have children.

TML is abysmal. Read David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, William Godwin, Karl Popper or Thomas Szasz instead.

UPDATE: What I said above is wrong in an important respect. Ethics doesn’t have a basis in problems or anything else including principles, but both problems and principles are important. Ethics can’t be based on problems because problems only come up in the light of a clash between different pieces of moral knowledge. So the knowledge has to be there before you can have the problem. If you’re going to solve the problem rather than just paper over it then the moral knowledge involved should be made explicit enough to be criticised.