Wednesday, March 06, 2013

the holism of facts, conventions and values

Two Dogmas of Empiricism by Willard Van Orman Quine (1951)

Read Quine's Two Dogmas of Empiricism for the most eloquent rebuttal of reductionism. By reductionism I mean the attempt to break down complex issues progressively into simpler statements. I'm not suggesting that all reductionism is bad but that it can be and has been overdone.

Before I read Quine's article I had regarded the term holism as little more than a buzz word used by woolly thinkers. Richard Dawkins is alleged to have once said in his militant atheistic style, “By all means let's be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.” (included in some very good quotes about open mindedness). Of course, such a general statement is correct. In fact, it is irrefutable unless the context is provided.

But Quine explains, in part, why we need to think holistically even though that is more difficult than a monistic or One True Way type of outlook.
The dogma of reductionism survives in the supposition that each statement, taken in isolation from its fellows, can admit of confirmation or infirmation at all. My countersuggestion ... is that our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body.
So, our knowledge and beliefs stand as a corporate body and attempts to break them down or to not allow the different specialised compartments to communicate with each other can be dangerous. This is what worries me about my own practice. I drift from one favoured way of working or doing to another, from immature marxism, to constructionism, to a more mature marxism, to Direct Instruction and there is little coherence left in the overall meaning of it all. I think trying out new approaches is good but it also needs to be evaluated. As Socrates suggested, "An unexamined life is not worth living".

Here is part of what Quine says about the connection between theory and practice:
The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Or, to change the figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field. Truth values have to be redistributed over some of our statements. Re-evaluation of some statements entails re-evaluation of others, because of their logical interconnections -- the logical laws being in turn simply certain further statements of the system, certain further elements of the field. Having re-evaluated one statement we must re-evaluate some others, whether they be statements logically connected with the first or whether they be the statements of logical connections themselves. But the total field is so undetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to re-evaluate in the light of any single contrary experience. No particular experiences are linked with any particular statements in the interior of the field, except indirectly through considerations of equilibrium affecting the field as a whole.
This is a different emphasis to the way I have thought about theory and practice previously.

Previously, I have favoured a marxist approach of a theory to practice spiral which ascends to the concrete (needs more explanation). Quine's approach is more along the lines that our knowledge is a dynamic jigsaw with fuzzy edges that interacts with senses experience. I think the difference is that Quine's approach is more open to the legitimacy of different viewpoints that fit the same body of information.

Another philosophy I have been studying recently, due to my interest in Direct Instruction, is logical positivism and / or logical empiricism.

These two different approaches (marxism and logical empiricism) tend to loudly proclaim their "correctness", as the One True Way. My feeling is that these approaches are sometimes correct about specifics but it is dangerous to see them as correct about everything. In practice, One True Way thinking has led to disaster.

Quine's approach is potentially more pluralistic. Quine may not have taken that step himself (according to Putnam, this requires more study) but his analysis opens that door.

Along the same lines, Quine concludes his paper with:
Each man is given a scientific heritage plus a continuing barrage of sensory stimulation; and the considerations which guide him in warping his scientific heritage to fit his continuing sensory promptings are, where rational, pragmatic.
In another essay, (Carnap and Logical Truth), Quine presents a doctrine that fact and convention interpenetrate without there ever being any sentences that are true by virtue of fact alone or true by virtue of convention alone:
The lore of our fathers is a fabric of sentences. In our hands it develops and changes, through more or less arbitrary and deliberate revisions and additions of our own, more or less directly occasioned by the continuing stimulation of our sense organs. It is a pale gray lore, black with fact and white with convention. But I have found no substantial reasons for concluding that there are any quite black threads in it, or any white ones. - source
This last quote is included in Hilary Putnam's The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy (2002), p. 138. Once again the details of the argument that fact and convention cannot be separated need to be investigated by me. Quine's rhetoric is brilliant but is he correct? My study of these issues is far from finished.

Putnam takes the whole discussion further in the above collection of essays. In essay 8, The Philosophers of Science's Evasion of Values he argues that science includes value judgments, not only "moral" or "ethical" judgments but also judgments of "coherence", "plausibility", "reasonableness", simplicity" and "elegance" (epistemic values).

Where this leads us requires far more discussion of Putnam's work. So, I'll just conclude with this quote from Vivian Walsh referenced by Putnam as an extension of Quine's doctrine:
To borrow and adapt Quine's vivid image, if a theory may be black with fact and white with convention, it might well (as far as logical empiricism could tell) be red with values. Since for them confirmation or falsification had to be a property of a theory as a whole , they had no way of unravelling this whole cloth.

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