The Italian coffee pot, a dialog on values in science (1): Individualism, values and preferences

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LORENZO: We are very thankful to you, Faustino, for your invitation to see today’s football match in your home. This morning, in the Philosophy of Science Congress, you have been one of the few recalling that our national team plays the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

FAUSTINO: You are welcome. I am very glad to see the match with you, especially now that our own team didn’t pass the first round.

VIOLETA: And it was the perfect excuse to show us your splendid, brand new, state-of-the-art TV set.

FAUSTINO: You know me too well, Violeta. But we have still more than an hour to the match. Do you want some drink, some coffee?

VIOLETA: One coffee, please. I love it how you make it in this country.

FAUSTINO: OK, please, sit down and relax while I prepare the coffee. In a few minutes I will destroy without mercy the ridiculous arguments of your presentations in the congress today. You will start receiving goals before the match begins.

LORENZO: Ha, I found something suspicious in your silence today.

Faustino spends a few minutes in the kitchen and comes back with the coffee.

FAUSTINO: Do you like it? More sugar? Well, I shall start by the easiest part of my argument. You, Violeta, said that your philosophical project consisted in applying methodological individualsm to the theory of science “till the ultimate consequences”. I guess that other people, like you, Lorenzo, may identify this with a positivistic reductionism, with some kind of “economics imperialism”, o with an exaggerate rationalism that hides the cultural diversity of our social world. But I am not one of those: I am very happy that you embrace methodological individualism, because that will bring you without remedy to my own philosophical position.

VIOLETA: Which position is that?

FAUSTINO: That there is nothing, absolutely nothing, beyond the subjective opinions of each individual. You even said that, at every specific historical moment, what we have to take as “the state of knowledge” in a scientific discipline is just the enumeration of the opinions expressed by each one of its members: there is nothing like a “public knowledge” that, as a kind of autonomous and collective entity, transcends the individual opinions, something which happens to be “more objective” than these.

VIOLETA: That’s what I think.

FAUSTINO: Welcome, then, to the post-modern anarchist republic!

VIOLETA: No, no, you are totally wrong if you think that my individualism confirms the theories of people like you, the cultural relativists. I deny the existence of a “virtual consensus” in science, more objectively justified than each of the individual opinions, but from this it does not follow that all opinions are equally legitimate.

FAUSTINO: I do not see how.

VIOLETA: In the first place, because all the process by which the scientists generate and modify their opinions is motivated, amongst other things, by the fact that each one of them has determinate basic preferences about when is a piece of knowledge “better” than another, or “more valid”. If they didn’t have these preferences, they might as well decide which opinion to have by means of a lottery.

LORENZO: Oh, Violeta, don’t be so naive. These criteria or preferences you are talking about are multiple, and often mutually incompatible. And, if your extreme individualism were right, they could in fact be based in motivations that had nothing to do the objective validity of scientific knowledge. And more importantly: if everything is a matter of individual preferences, how could we identify something like the values of science? Wouldn’t it be, in that case, just a matter of capricious likings?

VIOLETA: Of course not. Both of you, like most people, have a very dull idea of what individualism really is. Indeed, there is nothing “above” the opinions and criteria or preferences of individuals. Indeed, these opinions and criteria can be different from individual scientist to individual scientist… even from the same individual in two different moments. Indeed, the criteria actually employed to justify a particular scientific result may at times be unrelated to epistemic validity. And indeed, everything is just a question of “personal likings”. But the funny thing is to show that, in spite of that, the activity of a collection of interconnected scientists may lead to epistemic progress from the point of view of most individuals (including the three of us), given some institutional and material conditions.

FAUSTINO: What do you mean?

VIOLETA: Just imagine that we take a random set of people, and make them think and deliberate about how would they like that science were socially organised, so that it were most productive according to their own individual preferences. We don’t need to assume the existence of “values” that are “beyond” the personal “preferences”; we just simply let citizens collectively decide what preferences they want to be implemented, taking into account that they would probably need to negotiate with people that happen to have different preferences, and taking also into account that they will not exactly know how their decision will affect them personally in the future.

LORENZO: As if they decide “behind the veil of ignorance”, you mean?

VIOLETA: More or less.

FAUSTINO: But all that is terribly naive, my dear! Where are you going to find a group of “normal citizens” that are interested, or capable, of starting to discuss about the optimal social organisation of science?

VIOLETA: Well, if that sounds like science fiction, I can just turn to the citizen closer to me: you. If I discuss with you on that topic, and manage to persuade you that science is relatively well organised from your own point of view, I wouldn’t need the opinion of others.

FAUSTINO: I don’t think we have time to discuss that before football starts. Let’s leave that for the dinner. Now, just answer to me one question: how do you think that scientific knowledge can have a high value according to epistemic criteria (even according to the epistemic criteria of individual scientists themselves), if you say that scientists always take their decisions according to the personal interest?

VIOLETA: Well, that question shows again that you are misunderstanding what individualism entails. Individual scientists have individual preferences, but these preferences are nothing but an expression of what decision they would make if confronted to every possible choice. Why do you assume that the preference for “finding out the truth” is necessarily “less personal”, or “less important”, for a particular scientist, than the desire of finding out a good research job or a good salary? Why must her preferences be less valuable for coinciding less or more with those of her neighbours? Each individual has her own preferences, and there is no “more objective” social value scale against which to assess them. Or perhaps, there is something like this, but in truth is just the individual view each one of the individual assessors (including you and me) employs to judge or criticize what others do. Nevertheless, the conjecture I defended this morning tells that there is indeed a criterion to diferentiate, within the preferences of one individual, those that can be called “values” from those that are “mere individual tastes”.

FAUSTINO: Explain again to us what this criterion is.

VIOLETA: The idea is that, under certain circumstances, individuals must make collective decisions (for example, to build a road through some place, instead of other; or accepting a particular law as the solution to a scientific problem, instead of other competing equation). This collective decision might be made in an authoritarian way, but usually it is made through some process of collective deliberation. In this context, each individual cannot limit herself to express her “capricious preferences”, but must offer reasons, with which she will try to persuade others that her preferred alternative is also good for them (i.e., according to their reasons and preferences). My proposal is to call “values” those preferences an individual may reasonably take into account when proposing reasons in the context of a collective deliberation. The other preferences we might just call them “likings”. But “likings” and “values” are just two types of individual preferences, i.e., preferences of an individual or another.

LORENZO: But there must be some relevant, objective difference between both types of preferences. Why some of them are accepted as reasons and others do not.

VIOLETA: Well, perhaps there is nothing like a universal, absolute criterion to distinguish them: something can be a value in some context and a liking in another context. I suspect that the most important difference is how easily you can share the preference with others.

FAUSTINO: Can you put us an example in the context of science?

VIOLETA: All right. Imagine a scientist that has found some empirical data so disparate from the predictions of her hypotheses, that, according to the “values” usually followed within her discipline, that would count as a falsification of the conjecture. Wouldn’t be in her interest to try to persuade her colleagues of replacing those “values” for a criterion much less strict, so that the degree of discrepancy between her predictions and her data became “acceptable”? What is exactly what precludes her going to her colleagues and saying: “I know that in this kind of experiments we use to accept a datum as a ‘confirmation’ if and only if the error is less than 10%, but, why do not change that for a 40%? After all, both 10 and 40% are just mere conventions! And you will probably be very often in cases in which you will prefer that a mistake of almost 40% is taken by us as a ‘confirmation’, won’t you?” My own guess is that most scientists would doubt that changing the rule from 10% to 40% will lead them regularly to be more successful in general; they may expect the change made them better in some few cases, but most often not, not only because the obvious fact that theories would become much less trustable in general.

FAUSTINO: And why don’t they install a 1%-error norm, instead of the 10% one, by the way?

VIOLETA: Well, probably because if the degree of admissible error were much, much smaller, then very, very few hypotheses would be accepted in the end. There must be some kind of compromise between the different and conflicting preferences each scientist has. The “game of science” must give some reasonable chance of being won in order to become an interesting game to play, don’t you think?

To be continued.

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