Wednesday, June 04, 2008

CPA Report 4: The Value of Values

The late morning session I went to was quite good! I saw four papers on Science and Value that all brought something interesting to the table. It was a long session, a bit tiring, but I liked all the papers very much.

Kathleen Okruhlik gave an interesting talk entitled "Putman, Proctor, and Political Economy." If it had just been an advertisement for reading Proctor's book, Value-free Science?: Purity and Power in Modern Knowledge, it would have been worthwhile, but it was much more than that. The case of values and the ideal of value-freedom in political economy is an interesting one, one that Putnam brings up in his book on the fact/value, though Okruhlik suggested that Putnam's view of the history of both political economy and the fact/value dichotomy was overly narrow. Proctor has a wider view, in which Max Weber plays an important role. Chief among the interesting feature of Weber's historical mileu is that those arguing for the value-free ideal of science were progressives, whereas their value-happy opponents were conservatives.

One of the things that came up in Okruhlik's talk was also the "promiscuity" of the use of the term "value" in these debates. Think of all the things that "value" might stand in for: emotions, interests, ideologies, ethical norms, preferences, and so on. Moira Howes, in her talk on "Epistemic Emotions, Salience and Ignorance in Scientific Reasoning" was also emphasizing this point. While Okruhlik focused on ethical norms in her own account, Howes talked about how emotional reactions, and emotion-based preferences and aversions, have both necessary and biasing effects in science.

Something else that Okruhlik brought up that I found really interesting, was an extension of Proctor's explanation of the phenomenon of attempting to escape to value-freedom in science to philosophy. According to Proctor, this ideal is used by scientists as both a shield from a certain kind of criticism (value-free science is not subject to political, ideological, or moral critique) and a weapon against other views (value-laden science is full of wishful-thinking, bias, etc.?). So to, suggests Okruhlik, philosophers ascend to formal, meta-level discussions as both a shield and a weapon of the same sort. As she pointed out, for much of the twentieth century, discussions about ethics were limited almost exclusively to meta-ethics, i.e., value-free ethics! Philosophers have another way of escape as well, she suggested: they can descend into naturalism, avoiding the need to engage with ethical, epistemological, and other kinds of norms and values by moving to discussion of moral psychology, learning theory, etc. Very interesting. I wonder whether some good work couldn't be done on this, about "philosophy's evasion of values" or "philosophy's flight from the political." (Dibs!)

Howes' talk was also fantastic and complex. One of the things that I was most interested in was her discussion about the ways (positive and negative) that emotions or feelings guide rationality and the scientific process. She insisted that feminist philosophers should look carefully at the psychology and philosophy of emotions as a tool for feminist critique and feminist understandings of science. I couldn't help but think about how similar her ideas are to John Dewey's obscure but crucial essay, "Qualitative Thought." There Dewey talks about the way in which a "qualitative background" provides the necessary ground, context, and test of thought. Though I'm pretty sure Dewey meant "quality" to be broader than what we usually call "emotion," I think that his point is really aligned with Howes'. I'm pretty sure she even used and example that Dewey also took up: the way that certain feelings accompany the struggle through a mathematical problem, the way that those feelings can guide the process, and the way that being certain one has attained an answer is tied to the distinctive feeling of success at having solved the problem. Dewey applies such considerations to inquiry in general, and it seems as though Howes has similar aims.

The other talks were good as well, though I don't have as much to say about them. Neelam Sethi discussed "Rethinking Normativity," in which she compared feminist discussions of values and normativity to recent work by Philip Kitcher and Nancy Cartwright on ends / goals in science. Burcu Erciyes gave an ambitious paper, "Feminist Objectivity versus Traditional Objectivity," arguing that feminists provide a genuine rival conception of objectivity, rather than using "objectivity" in a different way.

I'm going to skip and go read a bit until the sessions at 4. Maybe I'll walk around the beautiful UBC campus a bit. Maybe I'll have some fancy pictures for ya'll tonight!

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